Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Stephen Torgoff

HRUM sums up hospital organizing

First Published: The Guardian, December 27, 1972.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Increasing ties with the working class have put the question of trade union policy at the top of the agenda for revolutionaries in the U.S.

The Health Revolutionary Unity Movement (HRUM) began in October, 1969 at New York City’s Gouverneur Hospital as an organization of the hospital workers in opposition to the established hospital unions. In December of that year HRUM decided to affiliate with the Young Lords party and its work spread to half a dozen other city hospitals.

After summing up three years of practice, the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization (PRRWO) which emerged from the Young Lords party last July has repudiated the HRUM strategy as one which doomed the organization to remain isolated from the majority of workers.

HRUM dissolved itself in November and its militants have since begun to work within the very union structures they once considered an obstacle to the emancipation of the working class.

The question of whether communists should work within the existing reactionary unions or should form separate organizations was addressed by Lenin, who argued in 𔄢’Left-Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder” that communists would become completely isolated if they directed their main attacks against the unions, which workers see as their first defense against the bosses.

That lesson was hammered home in the early years of the U.S. Communist party. William Z. Foster, the late Communist leader, wrote in “American Trade Unionism” that the error of dual unionism was one of the main impediments the young party had to overcome.

The dual unionist tendency, however, remains strong in the U.S. left. The basis of this, a reaction to the class collaboration of the labor aristocracy, insures that dual unionism will reappear again and again in various guises.

To develop roots

But for those organizations which are determined to develop deep roots in the working class, practice is a laboratory in which strategic errors can be discovered.

The story of HRUM’s work at Gouverneur Hospital was provided by an interview with PRRWO member Valerie Laguer.

Gouverneur hospital, with 350 workers, is located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a working class neighborhood of diverse nationalities – black, Latin, Asian and white.

“I started working at Gouverneur in July, 1968 as a nurse’s aid. Later, I became a clerk,” Laguer begins.

“In the fall of 1969, 96 workers found out through a newspaper announcement that they were to be laid off due to a cut in funds from the Medicaid program, the federally-subsidized health care plan for the poor and aged.

“We were then a rank-and-file group working in Local 1199 of the Drug and Hospital Workers Union.

“When the firing announcement came, the workers decided to confront the union. The union said it would strike if anything happened.

“Our group took the line that a strike in the hospital was a strike against the community and proposed a ’strike-in,’ where the fired workers would just keep working and the other workers would contribute to pay them.

“We attended union meetings, but instead of struggling with the union leadership, we just attacked them. Then we set up HRUM, with a 10-point program for community health, community control and workers’ control. We said that anyone who didn’t support all 10 points would be considered an enemy of the people.

“People related to the issues we were working around, like lead poisoning. The workers didn’t like our style of work, but they supported our ideas. The 10-Point program was picked up by groups all around the country.

“We started out as a rank-and-file group and moved to the left. We took the position that the union leadership was corrupt and that unions weren’t in the workers’ interests.

“We had a city-wide health workers congress in May 1970, which attracted a lot of people who wanted to get involved but not many workers. Then we started “For the People’s Health,” a newspaper to educate people about all the things that affect our lives, to try to spread the struggle to other hospitals and give political direction.

“At that time, we had about 20 workers in our core group, plus paraprofessionals, students and community people. We called ourselves a third world organization for non-professional workers, but that was a problem because we worked with white workers on the job. We could see that we had to address ourselves to all the workers in the hospital.

“We began printing 20,000 copies of “For the People’s Health,” taking a strong position on lay-offs and cut-backs. HRUM was active at Gouverneur, Lincoln, Morisania, Fordham, Greenpoint – all over the city.

“We were doing a whole lot of work but not seeing any results from the spontaneous struggles. It just didn’t build into something more. We had a sense that work was going badly and we began getting a lot of criticism.

“We had the same problem with our line on Puerto Rico. We took the position that Puerto Rico was a divided nation, that one-third of the nation was in the U.S., and that our first priority was the liberation of Puerto Rico. The workers saw that wasn’t right because their whole future was in the U.S. and the divided nation line didn’t offer any solution. It just wasn’t real to them and we just couldn’t recruit many workers.

“The Federation of Puerto Rican Workers (intended to be a mass organization of the YLP) came out of that line. It was dual unionist and membership was limited to Puerto Rican workers. The YLP created a women’s union, for instance, and started our own daycare center instead of struggling for more daycare centers for all workers.

“Our line that the lumpen-proletariat would be the vanguard of the working class created real contradictions, too.

“People saw us as outsiders. They were generally uptight about us. But although we had incorrect lines on unions and on Puerto Rico, we were right about the way workers and patients were treated. People were interested, but thev didn’t join.

“At our congress in July and at meetings before it, we had to see that a lot of the criticism was right. We saw that we weren’t a party, because a party is the advance detachment of the working class and our class base was limited. We realized that we just weren’t getting into people’s lives. A split developed in the party and one central committee member left.

Union members again

“We did a lot of self-criticism. We decided we had been ’left’-opportunist and that our views reflected the class’ composition of our organization. We were mostly students and lumpen. Some of us were workers. We took a clear position about whose interests we were fighting for–the working class. We decided to wage principled struggle in the unions and to become active union members again as we used to be.

“At Gouverneur, the city has taken over the hospital again, and many hospital workers became city employees. They are now under the jurisdiction of District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. With the city takeover, people may lose their seniority and workers with less than five years on the job will lose their pension payments.

“We formed a committee of workers to meet with District Council 37. We took a lot of initiative to get people to join the union. We see that the workers need the unions to protect themselves and that we have to fight from within the union.

“Carmen Cruz, a PRRWO leader, and I were elected shop stewards for the clerks in October. As stewards, we’ll be able to wage struggle, point out contradictions and get people to be more active.

“We want to form an organization which not only fights around economic issues and working conditions, but also against imperialism – to try to raise the consciousness of workers as workers. Because the people who work in the hospitals are the people who also use the hospitals, we also want to let the community know what’s happening in the hospital.

“The PRRWO can given leadership by taking a clear position on the attacks coming down on poor and working people. We can help people understand that the things happening to them today aren’t their fault, but the fault of the tiny minority who live on the sweat and pain of the majority who work. People can see that this must be changed.

“In our shop we were elected stewards because the workers could see that we were fighters and didn’t keep our mouths shut. We try to be fair and represent all workers and not just one group. We take the initiative.

“We used to give out leaflets, call a meeting for workers and hope people would come. We’ll still do that, but now we see that the way to relate to people is by developing closer ties with the workers and by learning from them. It’ll take a long process of development before we can create a strong mass organization.

“Because of our ’left’ errors, we were isolated from the very people we’re a part of.”