The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

UAW defeat at Toledo Hospital:
A missed opportunity

Apr 23, 2001

Workers at TTH (The Toledo Hospital) in Toledo, Ohio, voted almost two to one against organizing with the UAW (United Auto Workers union). The vote was carried out over three days, running from April 4 through April 6.

This vote was marked by a big turnaround by the TTH workers. When the UAW petitioned the NLRB for an election to certify the union on February 13, they did it with the signatures of well over half the eligible workers at the hospital –the same margin by which the vote went down to defeat seven weeks later. In February, it seemed as though a union victory was a sure thing –especially since this followed on the heels of a similar campaign at St. Vincent's Hospital in Toledo where the workers had voted for the union.

Certainly, the hospital administration did everything it could to ensure the union's defeat at TTH. Last summer and fall, when the union's card signing campaign was underway, the hospital made it clear to all the workers that they were opposed to having a union on their premises, and they harassed workers involved in the campaign.

After the union petitioned for the election, the hospital carried out a well-oiled propaganda campaign against the union. This campaign had been prepared by one of these firms that today specializes in helping employers stop union organizing drives.

The campaign was kicked off by a letter that the hospital sent to all workers claiming that a "small group" of union supporters was trying to impose the union on all the workers and that the hospital had protected the democratic rights of all the workers to a secret election.

When the hospital held anti-union meetings, making sure that within each meeting there were very vocal opponents of the union who spoke up. Workers were presented with a barrage of videos, handouts and speeches. The aim of this campaign was to show that the UAW was undemocratic; that it was interested in the hospital workers only to make up for the dues it had lost when the number of auto workers organized declined; that it didn't really represent the workers already in the union when they had grievances, and so on. It, of course, talked about the risk of strikes –but even here it was done in a particular way, as though the company was trying to protect the workers. The company talked about a UAW strike in Kentucky which had been particularly long and difficult, in the middle of which the UAW cut off strike pay to its members on strike.

The hospital, of course, never talked about why the workers in Kentucky felt the need to strike in the first place, that is, what the company had done.

But, obviously, employers are going to use rotten tactics. If there weren't a way to get past these tactics –and much worse, in fact –unions never would have been formed in the first place.

And, here, it has to be said that the UAW's general policy, just as that of all the unions today, helps contribute to the inability to organize.

The UAW is not the only union trying to organize today. All the major ones, along with the AFL-CIO have made a special campaign. They say it openly: if they don't organize, they will die. And yet, year after year, the rate of union organization goes down. In private industry, the rate of unionization stands today significantly lower than it was in 1932, before the big organizing drives which created the CIO. And, with only a couple exceptions in the last 12 years, the actual number of workers organized in unions has gone down year after year.

The policy of the unions, the UAW included, is marred by the union's view of its own role –in the workplace and in the working class. The UAW leadership, for example, says openly that their aim is to have a partnership, cooperation, with "their" companies. They talk about how efficient and productive union workplaces are. And of course they are –for the companies.

But there is an antagonism between the workers and the company: basically, the company makes its profits off the work the workers do. The more work they can get, and the less they have to pay, the more profits they get. Even in the best years of the UAW, when workers enjoyed a real increase in wages while the companies increased their profits, it was not a "win-win situation," and it can never be. The higher wages paid to UAW workers were paid for out of rapidly increasing productivity –which eliminated jobs year after year. But, now, in this time period, the situation of the workers is actually going down, even while the unions talk about wanting a partnership.

After the UAW was recognized at St. Vincent's, it immediately proclaimed that its goal was to have a "cooperative" arrangement with management. Even at TTH in the middle of the campaign, the union was careful not to do anything which would have created what it called "an antagonistic relationship" with the company which might cause problems for future negotiations.

When hospital administration called the UAW a "strike-happy union," the union responded officially by saying don't worry –97% of contracts are bargained WITHOUT a strike! In other words, they weren't even then ready to attack the bosses who provoke strikes.

There's a problem in this desire to accommodate to management, however: hospital management was openly antagonistic toward the union.

Even when the hospital tried to portray the TTH workers who had been active in the campaign as a "tiny minority," imposing their views on the majority, union organizers did nothing to refute this –which was the boldest lie of all. They never even informed the workers just how many of them had signed for the union. Union supporters, the real majority, began to feel like an isolated minority within the hospital itself.

Instead, the main axis of the union's campaign was to tell the hospital workers just how much the UAW would be able to win FOR them in a UAW-bargained contract. Given the experience of the last 20 years –a time of losses for the working class and for the UAW, of which many Toledo workers are certainly aware –this is not even very convincing. But most important, this perspective does not present the union as the organized power of the workers themselves, but as a group of people selected to negotiate with the company.

All of this conveyed the idea that the union is something separate and apart from the workers. This was exactly what the hospital played on.

Even the workers most active in the campaign did not find the way to respond to the slanders of the hospital with the most efficient answer of all: WE are the union. WE make the decisions. WE decide what we want to do. That response, which should come naturally in a union which the workers build, did not come at all.