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Labor historian Bill Barry, TRNN host Jaisal Noor, and labor activist Frank Hammer discuss the Hopkins hospital workers’ strike as well as the organizational and political problems that unions face today

Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Now joining us in-studio is our esteemed panel to discuss this issue. We have Jaisal Noor, who actually did the piece, joining us in-studio. We’ll get some of Jaisal’s comments about how it was reporting on that story and whatnot.

And also joining us in-studio is Bill Barry. Bill Barry is a retired director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County in Dundalk and was a union organizer for 20 years before that.

Thank you both for joining us.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Now, is Frank Hammer in with us, too?

DESVARIEUX: And is Frank there on–.

JAY: Frank was–Frank Hammer’s going to be coming in by webcam.


JAY: Is Frank with us?

DESVARIEUX: He’ll be joining us.

JAY: There he is.

DESVARIEUX: There he is.

Hi, Frank. How are you doing?

I don’t know if Frank can hear us, but Frank is a retired General Motors employee and former president and chairman of Local 909 in Warren, Michigan. He now organizes with Autoworker Caravan, an association of active and retired auto workers who advocate for workers’ demands in Washington.

Thanks for joining us, Frank. Can you–.

JAY: I don’t think Frank’s hearing us, so I think we’re going to start in the studio.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Let’s start in the studio.

So, Paul, you–.

JAY: Start with Jaisal.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. So, Jaisal, you just did that piece. And what were people’s reactions to the strike when you were covering that?

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Well, you know, I grew up in the area, but I lived for the last six years in New York, and strikes were a lot more common in New York City compared to Baltimore. This is the first strike that I can remember, you know, and especially in the last year, the first big strike that’s been on the news. And I think people were definitely interested to hear why these Hopkins workers were going on strike.

You know, there are some of the workers that are making, like, decent money. They’re making $30, $40 an hour. But people were really surprised to hear that people could be working at Johns Hopkins, the premier medical institution in the world, for 15 years, and they’re making $12 an hour, $13 an hour doing, often, dangerous work.

JAY: Yeah. We heard–in the piece, I guess, people saw one of the guys actually has to take HIV-preventative medicine before he can go clean up after surgeries. And he’s making–I think he was, like, $13 an hour.

NOOR: Yeah, exactly. So I think people appreciate what these workers do, and they appreciate that oftentimes they’re kind of putting their lives on the line. And they’re not making the money that they feel like they deserve. And I think that’s resonating. And you saw the pressure kind of grow against Hopkins. And at least the workers we talked to feel that they’re–at least in the arena of public opinion–they’re building support, public support throughout the strike and the negotiations and the rally, we had filmed, they’re building support for their cause.

JAY: Right. Bill, the theme of the panel is to talk about why aren’t more people in unions and sort of how the unions have become so much weaker over the decades. But one of the argument for unions that–usually when you compare unionized workers to non-unionized workers, union workers do better. You look at these Hopkins workers, I guess they’re doing a little better, but not much. You wonder if they would–they’d really be paying any less if they didn’t have a union after 15 years of work and you’re only making $13.

BARRY: Well, I think you can always assume that anybody who has a union would be making less if they didn’t have a union. But I think that over time the service industry generally in Baltimore and in the country as a whole has not been organized, that what’s called the union density, that is, the percentage of people in the industry–and Frank Hammer can tell you that at the [high value?] of General Motors and Chrysler, that 90 percent of the autoworkers were organized. So wage is taken out of the equation.

And I think that’s one of the real problems here is generally service workers are not these people that Hopkins tend to be–women, single parents, minorities. I mean, I picketed with them. And years and years ago, they organized Hopkins, but they needed to organize all the hospitals, you know, all the hotels, all the cleaning services, things like that.

JAY: Yeah. I was talking to some people that work at Hopkins at the medical staff level. They’re barely aware of the strike.


JAY: There’s not any possibility or threat at the moment of, like, closing the place down or something.

BARRY: Well, I also think there’s a real separation in many industries between the people who consider themselves to be skilled. You couldn’t operate a hospital without that group. They clean it, they take care of things, they maintain all the systems in the hospital, the higher-paid ones, the electrical, the air conditioning. The Hopkins hospital could not open up without them. But often you’ll see people who are doctors or highly paid people totally oblivious to the importance of us little people in the world.

JAY: Right.

NOOR: And what’s actually interesting: during the course of this story, we looked at the wages Hopkins pays compared to all other hospitals in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, and just about for every position they pay less, for doctors as well in many cases.

JAY: But that means compared to–but are these other places also unionized?

NOOR: That’s a good question.

JAY: ‘Cause that sounds like they’re actually maybe paying less than some other places that aren’t even unionized.

NOOR: I think many hospitals in the area are unionized.

BARRY: Yeah. Not that many. But I think if you look at the scale–. And I think it’s also a reflection of the medical care system in this country, that you’re dependent on private insurance companies, and they’ll cut and cheat every way that they can on the premiums so that their CEOs can have million-dollar salaries. And so it’s a total messed-up system, many people without health care even after the Affordable Care Act–hasn’t changed that.

JAY: So, is Frank Hammer with us now?

Frank, can you hear me?


JAY: So what I’m kind of getting at here is sort of what seems to be over the years a sort of lack of militancy in many of the unions. To be honest with you, we were at the rally, the Hopkins rally, and it was good. There was a rally, and they sort of rah-rahed, and there’s been some pickets. But as I said, when I’ve talked to people that work at Hopkins, there’s not been kind of a really aggressive push to get other Hopkins workers to come and support the picket lines, to have the students come out, you know, various things you would think that would give a–show a more militant edge, you can say. And what do you make of that in terms of–not the specific of Hopkins, but just generally where trade unions are at in terms of–. My memory when I was a kid, unions, when they went out it was a big deal. They would close places down. And if you messed with their picket lines–you know, the cops were often afraid to go near many of the workers’ picket lines. It’s not like that anymore.

HAMMER: Well, I think in the industrial sector, and certainly in auto, I think you have to look at the situation of the industry, my union specifically, the UAW, that even over the last four years, during the time that we’ve sort of stabilized our membership, we’re at around 400,000. We used to be at 1.5 million. Forty percent of the assembly plants in the United States today are unorganized.

And you have workers, for example at my shop, I learned recently, coming in through a subcontractor, not union, making $8 an hour and happy to be having that job, because he thinks that he’s going to be able to climb up into employment with General Motors. So he’s very happy to have this $8 an hour job. And when you have that kind of circumstance and the amount of unemployment that we’re confronted with, it sure does dampen militancy, on the one hand. So you have the material aspect.

The other aspect has to do with the ideology of the union stewardship, the union leadership. And very clearly, from 2010 for sure and certainly from before that, they’ve embarked on partnerships with the multinationals. So, for example, the UAW, the last strike that UAW had at GM was in 1998. So we’re talking about, you know, 15, 16 years since there was a strike with GM, except for the theatrical strike that we had in 2007. So it’s a combination of the material conditions that we face with the degree of automation in the factories. My plant today has 400 workers. We used to have 4,000. And that’s not atypical. We feel fortunate because my plant is still open. So we have the material conditions, on the one hand. On the other hand, you have the ideological pursuits of the unions, and specifically here the UAW, that’s pretty much taking it’s direction from the company, and also from the Democratic Party. And partnership is the song of the day. And as the governor of Michigan, the Democratic governor of Michigan, Granholm, told our convention in 2010, the UAW going forward will be the broker of great skills. It will not be the old militant union that stood up for its membership.

JAY: Right.

Bill, if you go look at this historically–and I don’t think you can completely explain it by the fear and threat of unemployment. Certainly that’s a big deal, but in the 1930s, there was tremendous unemployment, but the unions were a heck of a lot more militant. And even, like, you take a year like 1946, there was a lot of unemployment, but more strikes in the history of the United States–I don’t think there’s ever been as many strikes since. But something happened when it went into ’49 and ’50 and the Cold War. And also (just let me add one other thing) something happened in terms of a lot of labor leaders started making a heck of a lot of money.

BARRY: Right. Well, I think what happened was a generational thing, also, that a young worker comes into a unionized plant today and simply inherits–puts out his hand and the benefits drop in, the wages drop in, the insurance drops in, although not nearly as much as it was 20 years ago. But they have absolutely no sense of where that came from. And it’s almost like your kids: they think money just comes. Right? [crosstalk]

JAY: Yeah, iPhones just appear, and in fact you have a right to the iPhone.

BARRY: Exactly. Right. Entitlement. And I think that as the original generation of the ’30s and ’40s, they were a group with much deeper political ambitions than today. They were very much opposed to the Democratic Party. There were all kinds of radical groups. In fact, in the original sit-down strikes, half the battles were inside the plants over various political groups, over who was the greater revolutionary. And that pushed everything to the left.

And I think one of the things that we’re talking about here in relation to the Hopkins strike–people at that time understood. That is, they often lived near where they worked, and so they were a community outside the plant as well as inside. And you certainly saw that at Sparrows Point, that a generation ago, people lived in East Baltimore or /tərn/ Station and places like that. Thanks to the union and the interstate highway system–and this is true in Detroit as well–people are scattered over 200 square miles. So there’s not that sense of closeness and solidarity.

But we went to the Hopkins picket line, and I don’t think I saw people from two or three other unions [sic]. And that’s all. One guy from the Steelworkers came, a group from hotel/restaurant workers–UNITE HERE, rather, and a couple from the postal workers. I went to a demonstration of the postal workers’. Nobody else is there.

JAY: Same thing. You know, one of the guests that was supposed to make this panel and didn’t make it is one of the–.

BARRY: Lucky Crosby, who was our guest with me last time.

JAY: Yeah. And he’s on the executive of the public sector workers that deals with the public housing.

BARRY: Right.

JAY: And they’re in a fight right now because the public housing might get privatized, and if it gets privatized, the union guys might lose all their jobs.

BARRY: Sure.

JAY: And I said, well, are you getting at least other public sector union support? Who’s coming out and supporting you? And it was kind of, well, no.

BARRY: But one of the things is that you learn you get what you give. And I asked Lucky on the last show, who have you picketed with who’s not in your union? And he wasn’t clear that they had.

And so, often, as I said, you help your neighbor out, your neighbor helps you out. And often unions need to be union members. And the officers are often making a lot of money–they don’t care.

But if I’m at the rank-and-file level, I’m working at Hopkins or I’m working as an employee of the Public Housing Department, I’ve got a kinship and a solidarity with other workers like that, and I need to go and help them out, and my union needs to be visible, and I need to be there, because then when I’ve got a problem, I can go and say, remember when I helped you out? I need you now, and I need you on the picket line, I need you for the public housing group politically, I need you to be able to go to City Council and say, we’ve got to keep this public and not privatize [crosstalk]

DESVARIEUX: Yeah, Bill, you mentioned the officers making a lot of money. I want to go back to Paul’s point about the union leadership. How responsible are they for the decline of unionization [crosstalk]

BARRY: Well, I don’t know that–alone, they are. They have become part of a system. And for many years, since the ’30s, it worked and union membership wages, defined pension benefits, early retirement, were all clearly higher than non-union work. And so the wave took off and people rode up on the top.

And the thing is that often now there is a real adjustment to make. And you see it individually among members. I do a lot of work with the Sparrows Point people, and all of a sudden they’ve gone from $110,000 a year in full benefits to unemployment and no health insurance. And it’s a radical change. And not all of them are able to make it. It’s not a fun thing to do, to say, oh, well, I’ll give up my Lincoln Town Car or my nice suits because my membership’s going on. And what happens–.

JAY: Well, this is this belief that this bubble would go on forever.

BARRY: Somehow it’s going to go on.

JAY: Frank, but this isn’t all like this is all end–a swan song here. There are pockets of places across the country where there’s a lot of militancy. There’s fights going on in various unions, including the UAW, to try to change the leadership and change the direction of the unions. Talk a little bit about what you know about this.

HAMMER: Well, this week is the week of–the UAW’s having it’s quadrennial convention right here in Detroit. There is, I have to say, quite a bit of dissension in the ranks of UAW, and it’s a question of which direction that dissension is going to go. So there are some rank-and-file activists who’ve made some sweeps in some locals for people looking for change in the direction of the union. A lot of the question is going to pivot around the UAW’s leadership is saying that we need a dues increase or a change in the formula that would increase the dues from–the last time they did this was 50 years ago. And so there is a lot of–a bit of a rebellion going on. And some activists, I think maybe as early as tomorrow, are going to put forward that this decision about whether the dues should be increased or not should be something that’s left in the hands of the rank and file rather than these delegates who are at the convention who are going to have to face the rank and file when they go back to their locals at the conclusion of the convention.

And I think the reason I point to this is because I think the unions–it doesn’t have to be a swan song at all. But if unions don’t transform into a more democratic solidarity type of unionism and democratic organization and democratic participation, it will be. The only way to win union members back to an enthusiasm and a passion for the organization that they’re part of is as it becomes more democratic and as the decisions that get made are made more at the local level than some distant headquarters. So I think this is the issue that confronts the UAW. If it wants to grow, it has to become more democratic. This became very evident in recent organizing drives and in speaking to some of the rank-and-file organizers in Volkswagen. Their complaint was the same as the rank-and-file members who are members of the union. The UAW did not engage them in a democratic manner. That’s what needs to happen. And I think that the unions can become robust. But as long as it’s in the hand of a bureaucracy and bureaucrats that are alarmed by giving power to rank-and-file, I think we’ll have a problem.

JAY: There’s a new leader at the Canadian Labour Congress who–in a very hard-fought and close election, the new leader won.

And I’m drawing a blank. I’m asking my researchers: remind me of his name. It’s kind of silly, ’cause I actually know him. But researcher, come on, tell me. Alright. I’m not getting it here.

Anyway, he ran on a far more militant platform and won the election. I’m wondering, Bill, is there any sign of that happening here [incompr.] contested elections are–.

BARRY: Well, I don’t know [crosstalk] there are contested elections in Baltimore, contested elections nationwide, a new president of the postal workers, a new president of the Amalgamated Transit Union. These are much different kind of people. And it’s a surge of rank-and-file activity. And that’s where it has to come from. It has to come from the bottom. The average union member has to say, I’ve had enough, I need to do better, and whether it’s the people at Hopkins, whether it’s the mass transit authority, the postal system.

Just in the last three months, the new leadership of the Postal Workers has geared up this anti-Staples campaign. It’s an outsourcing thing. And it’s become very visible, very active. They’ve reached out to a lot of people, used different kinds of social media. And I think there’s a contested election in the machinists union. There was a backup after the Boeing election, the contract out there. The international came in and made them re-vote on a contract that many of the workers didn’t want, had significant cutbacks.

So I think that the members are stirring. There’s also–.

JAY: I mean, part of the issue was in the past, you said, you got used to this Lincoln Town Car. So this level of militancy, you know, especially in the upper tier of the unions, that were–people were getting two cars and they knew their kids could go to college and even have a cottage and all of this.

BARRY: Absolutely.

JAY: And they thought this would go on for ever.

BARRY: That’s right.

JAY: Well, now they know it isn’t going on forever.

BARRY: That’s right.

JAY: Now they’re losing houses. Now the kids can’t afford to go to university. If they go to university, they’re coming out with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. The kids can come out of university with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, and then they can’t find a job.

BARRY: That’s right.

JAY: So why aren’t we seeing something more than we’re seeing?

BARRY: Well, I think one of the problems is that often people don’t wake up until they’re over the edge of the cliff. And we’ve had this discussion for years. I taught classes at Sparrows Point, and I would talk to the Steelworkers about–my students, rank-and-file members, about national health care. No, no, we don’t need national health care. Well, now they had 2,000 people who lost all their health care. Now all of a sudden they’re interested. And it goes back to debates about Barack Obama, you know, taking it off the table, and they voted for him, things like that.

JAY: Now, there is something happening with the fast food workers. I mean, Jessica, you did a story on this.

DESVARIEUX: Yes, I did, I just recently did a story.

BARRY: There is activity. There’s just a lot of unhappiness and anger. And I think one of the things we saw in the 1930s was that left-wing political parties took a leadership, and they went out into the communities and they said, we don’t have to put up with this, let’s go. And it wasn’t always well thought out and wasn’t always successful, but boy they picked up a huge amount of support. They built an enormous movement, such as the country has never seen. And I think that’s what we need to come back again and do.

And I think some of the unions are putting resources into organizing fast food workers. They’re–or supporting them. And whether or not they’ll go to Ronald McDonald and say, we want you to recognize these workers and we want to be a union nationwide–. Amazon, a new warehouse coming up in here, people are talking about maybe thinking about organizing that.

I just think that there’s a lot of thinking going on, and what we need to now see is a lot of action following from that.

DESVARIEUX: I want to get our viewers a part of this conversation. We actually got an email from one of our viewers in Toronto, where The Real News started. Joe Grey [spl?] from Toronto emailed us this question:

Why not mention international human rights when discussing issues ranging from homelessness, food security, or labor exploitation?

So is there a role for human rights in advocating for labor? I’m going to ask you, Frank, out there in Detroit.

HAMMER: Well, it’s–I think that’s a great question, and I think that certainly the Steelworkers, to some extent my own union have gravitated toward making broader international links and connections, and even support for struggles abroad. And I think this is all to the good. And I think that with the globalization of capital that we’re sort of woefully behind. But it’s good to see the unions moving in that direction. And I’m especially proud of the Steelworkers and their work with British unions, British steelworkers and so on.

But there’s another side to this question, and that is that these partnerships, especially in the UAW, dampen down international human rights activity when it comes to workers who work for our companies, right, GM and Ford and Chrysler, but certainly in the case of GM. We’ve had a campaign now for well over two years in support of Colombian GM workers. And if you take a look into the UAW Solidarity magazine, you see no mention of it, even though there’s a tremendous amount of rank-and-file support that’s been built here, for example, in Detroit. And we even have an ex local officer going on hunger strike for 22 days, and this gets no mention in the UAW Solidarity magazine.

JAY: I should say there are several stories on this on The Real News. So if you search “UAW” or “autoworker” and “Colombian workers”, you’ll find we’ve done at least half a dozen stories on this, but I don’t think you’ll find it in, certainly, any mainstream news coverage.

HAMMER: The Real News has done a yeoman’s job of having this international perspective and seeing labor as global.

So there’s two aspects to it. And the day that the UAW breaks free from these imposed sort of neoliberal we’ve got to be competitive, we’ve got to support our companies, as soon as it breaks away from that and recognizes that the real important allies are the workers in Latin America and certainly in Colombia who are working for GM, that we will build a much more invigorated labor movement than we have now. And right now, it’s shunning those solidarity campaigns that involve our own companies.

JAY: Bill, talk–if you were advising us or you–now you are advising us–we want to do specific work in trying to talk to workers in Baltimore. What would you like us to be doing?

BARRY: Well, I think that you’re looking at–I think this was a great question, by the way, and I didn’t mean to neglect–’cause we talk about solidarity, you talk about local solidarity, but certainly global solidarity is absolutely important. And the union movements historically have always been behind businesspeople. And it is when the workshop system in the 18th, the 19th centuries were here–workers organized little craft unions. But the factory system had started, and it took the unions a long time to create the industrial unions. And now we need to have global unions. And so the people at Hopkins have to understand that the same problem they have, the poor women sewing shirts in Bangladesh have. And they need to be conscious of that. They’re not always able to do it.

But I think looking at these questions of how workers are dealing with problems here in Baltimore and what–not what problems. But I think the great thing about The Real News Network is–if I could give you a promo–is that you look at solutions and not problems, ’cause we saw a great presentation over the weekend about inequality, economic inequality. And this guy had a PowerPoint [incompr.] was unbelievable. He charted obesity, spouse abuse, incarceration, cigarette usage, all in relation to economic inequality. The United States has the highest economic inequality. And he found out we were at the top of all these other ones. And then he said thank you very much and went home. So I can see the problems. Concentrate on the solutions. What are people doing? What obstacles are they finding? What resources are they creating? What strategies are they using? Because you want people to learn from other people. And I think that’s one of the important things about The Real News Network can be the communication that we don’t otherwise had.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. I’m glad we’re recording this, ’cause we might run that as a pitch later.

BARRY: Well, I’ll tell you what I’m even going to do. I’m going to back this up. Here.


BARRY: And I challenge other people who want to see these other kinds of resources out there. They don’t come free. And just as we talked about the young workers coming into the union shop and everything is there, people think, oh, I just turn on the TV or the Roku, and there’s all this news. Well, not true. And so it’s no shame to say to people, you need to support us. And Frank was just talking about the officers of the UAW figure out how they’re going to do it, and they’re going to get a dues increase, and they got one and a half million members down to 400,000, so now they’ve got to change. And so I think that the important question is: how are workers in Baltimore struggling, you know, economically, socially? I think politically it’s a big issue.

JAY: Well, thank you very much for the donation. And that’s an obvious segue into thanking our guests.

And, Frank, thanks very much, and I know you’ll be back often to talk about all these issues. Thank you, Bill. Thank you, Jaisal.

BARRY: Thank you for having us.

HAMMER: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for watching the webathon. We’re going to continue after a little taped segue. We’ll be back in just a couple of minutes.


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Frank Hammer is a member of the Real News Network Board of Directors, and has been a social justice activist for nearly 50 years. He spent the last 40 years in the labor movement as an autoworker and a member, elected officer, staff representative, and now retiree of the United Auto Workers. Frank was the former president of the Greenacres Woodward Civic Association in Detroit, and he currently represents the association as a member of the Michigan State Fairgrounds Advisory Committee. He is a lecturer in the Labor Studies Programs at Wayne State and Indiana Universities. He’s a board member of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, an activist with South East Michigan Jobs with Justice, the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW-UAW), and the Autoworker Caravan.

Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.

Bill Barry is retired director of labor studies at The Community College of Baltimore County in Dundalk, and was a union organizer for 20 years before that. He has written three books on unionism: I Just Got Elected, Now What: The New Union Officer's Handbook ; Union Strategies for Hard Times ; From First Contact to First Contract: An Organizer's Handbook and will have a new book running--appropriately on May 1--off the press, The 1877 Railroad Strike in Baltimore , which grew from the historical marker erected last year at Camden Yards. Bill has also been a 3-time candidate for Baltimore City Council as Green Party member in northeast Baltimore.