More Work, Fewer Workers

I’m a Marxist and shop steward in SEIU 1199, working in a nursing home as an occupational therapist in New York City. The CEO has been laying off workers due to supposed “budgetary constraints.” Meanwhile, the nursing home has been upgrading and remodeling the physical plant for years. The work load has been increasing and the demands of the job have become more and more stressful. Staff are expected to pick up the slack, complete their assignments, and care for patients with the decreased numbers of workers. The boss refuses to hire additional staff and overtime pay is severely restricted.

As a result, workers are exhausted and are calling out sick more often. Supervisors have been disciplining workers who call out too much or fall behind in their work; suspensions and terminations have increased. Direct patient care staff, such as nurses and nurses’ aides, have been injured caring for their increased patient load and assignments. Fatigue or exhaustion can have serious consequences, not only for the worker but also for our patients.

To avoid reprimand and to complete their assignments, workers have been coming in early, staying late, and working through their break times, thus giving the boss additional unpaid labor. They do this out of fear of being suspended without pay or terminated, and because they lack confidence that the union will protect them. Some union organizers or shop stewards explain to the workers that as long as the work is being done there is no need to hire additional staff or pay for overtime! In reality, workers must obey state laws about working during breaks, or working before or after their scheduled work time for no pay. Class action grievances and complaints have been sent to supervisors about the unfair work conditions, but nothing has seriously changed.

When a union worker leaves or retires, a nonunion replacement worker is hired. Typically, these workers are from temp agencies or work per diem. Wages and benefits are lower, and they get no guaranteed government-defined pension at retirement as 1199 union workers do. 1199 workers do not contribute to their pensions—the bosses cover the full costs, as they should—whereas nonunion workers either get no retirement plan or must contribute to a 401k or IRA plan.
With this in mind, it is easy to understand why the boss is creating problems for his union workers. Under capitalism, companies maximize profits by reducing expenditures. The boss saves money by hiring lower-paid workers and providing no health, vacation, or pension benefits. Ultimately, the capitalist must compete against all other capitalists to stay in business or they will be swallowed up by bigger companies or forced to declare bankruptcy. Our facility is being modernized to attract patients’ family members, to entice them to bring their loved one to us rather than the “other guy.”

New York State has turned over the operation health care facilities to privately managed care companies in order to reduce the state’s budget for health care. These companies have been laying off and cutting spending on equipment and patient supplies to make profits for their owners.

Weak unions with ineffective leadership are another reason for job austerity and poor working conditions, not only in the health field but in other occupations as well. Unions were stronger in the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, when the economy was strong. Jobs were more plentiful and the average household could be supported on one worker’s salary. Union membership was about 38% of all working people in the US. The bosses were forced by the strength of the unions to share some of the profits with the workers, in the form of higher wages, paid sick time, paid vacations, and paid holidays. Even companies with a nonunion work force gave their employees better pay, benefits, and working conditions, in order to compete with the unionized shops and keep the workers from organizing.

Today, union membership in the US has dwindled to about 11%, and as a result of the capitalist crisis, the bosses claim they can no longer afford to give workers what they were used to getting in the past. The union leadership no longer makes any serious demands on the bosses, while the bosses make meager concessions to the union leadership in order to appease the building anger of the rank and file, whose real wages have not increased since the late 70s. Unfortunately, today’s union leaders act as if the unions were individual entities divided by separate interests, concerned only with what affects that particular industry. The idea that “an injury to one is an injury to all” has essentially disappeared as unions no longer act in collective solidarity against the bosses’ attacks on the workers.

Union presidents hope in vain for the return of “the good old days” and usually spend their PAC money—political action campaign donations made by members—on Democratic candidates. Once elected, they do very little to increase living standards for the workers. 1199 SEIU spent $27.8 million on the 2012 Obama presidential campaign, and sent thousands of workers around the country to work in campaign offices and ring door bells—and have nothing to show for it.

Quality jobs are being lost as companies move to other, poorer countries where unions are even weaker, wages are low, and work safety standards are virtually nonexistent. The only options available to most youth, and especially black and Latino youth, are low-wage fast food and service jobs, or unemployment.

Workers are frustrated and angry. Unable to find a good job—or any job—they see their standard of living going down as the cost of living goes up, and can’t seem to pull themselves out of debt. Isn’t America supposed to be where anyone could be “successful”? Where, if you work hard enough, you could own your own business, buy a beautiful house in the suburbs, send your kids to college, and retire comfortably? For millions of workers, the American Dream is dead  and reality is setting in. We are facing a deep crisis of the capitalist system which will only get worse in the next period. This is caused by contradictions inherent in the system from its earliest beginning. And yet, workers are made to feel that they are somehow at fault for not “doing well” or “getting ahead” when it is the system that is decaying.

The only solution to the capitalist crisis is socialism. Nothing is built or maintained without the consent and effort of the workers. Inevitably, workers will become conscious of this power and act collectively as a class. In order to achieve this, we must build a new leadership and take back our unions.  We must stop supporting the bosses’ parties and demand that the labor leaders build a mass party of labor that fights only for workers’ interests. Under socialism and a workers’ government, so much will be possible: quality jobs with good wages and benefits, less time on the job so we can spend time with our families or pursue our own interests, free health care from the cradle to the grave, free education, an end to student debt, good and affordable housing, transportation, and more. Marxists stand with the rest of our class in our common struggle: in every workplace, school, workers’ neighborhood, and union. Help us to turn the unions into fighting organizations! Help us in our fight for a socialist world and a better life for all!

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