April's CR Diary

A diary of a 30 year old woman following CRON, or Caloric Restriction with Optimal Nutrition, for health and life extension.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Your Organizing Lesson

I was thinking today about the lessons I try to teach VLC -- that's Very Little Co-worker, my good friend and staff organizer whom I hired and supervise. We used to joke that her first year of organizing was like being a baby kangaroo: she was so close to me all the time that it was like she was riding around in my pouch. She said she didn't want to stop being a baby kangaroo, but soon I have to push her out on her own, because I'm going to be gone, onto new challenges and adventures. [I hope that by now the suspense is figuratively, not literally, killing you.]

I've tried to teach her the lessons I've learned in nine heart breaking, soul-testing, gloriously fulfilling years of union organizing. And it's hard to teach that because so much of it you can only learn by living. You don't know what it's like to lose until you've stood there in the polling place and watched the vote count and seen the workers cry when they realize that they fought so hard and stood up for themselves and were defeated. You can't teach someone else how to deal with the pain of closing down a campaign that you poured your heart and soul into, of walking away because you know you're going to lose. You can't simulate the process of being broken down over and over again and building yourself back up. And it's that re-building that makes you an organizer. It's not winning -- it's learning how to lose and get up to fight another day.

One thing I have tried to teach her is that you have to take risks. You can't let your fear stop you from throwing yourself heart and soul into the campaign. It's especially hard after you've lost. When I was only 23 I lost the first campaign that I ever ran by myself, by only six votes. It was at a small hospital in South Jersey. I did the first meeting on October 20, 1997, and we lost the election on May 21, 1998. I still observe the date every year, but with my freakish memory for dates, that's not surprising. I still observe the date on which I saw the "Robert F. Kennedy and His Times" TV special when I was in sixth grade too. Anyway, for all those months I thought of little else... I spent hours and hours meeting with nurses, talking with them on the phone, answering their calls in the middle in the night when management pulled them into mandatory meetings on night shift. The night before the election, the vote count was so close that any experienced organizer would have known that we would lose: when your total tells you that you're dead even, the fact is, someone is going to change his or her mind and vote no. The status quo always wins in union elections. But as a young organizer, I still had hope. Even driving to the vote count, I still hoped we could pull it off.

We lost, very narrowly, 79 no to 69 yes. Six votes in the other direction and we would have won it. My organizing director at the time, who is still a very dear friend, assured me that I had done all I could. I remember he said, "You proved more about yourself by losing this campaign than most organizers prove when they win." Larry was one of the greatest teachers, mentors and friends I've ever had. He had been there himself, and he knew how hard it is.

My next campaign was at an urban hospital in Trenton. We got the call in late July. It wasn't long before I was swept away in the tide of relationship-building, doing meetings everyday, showing nurses how they could change their lives. Meeting nurses at a diner at 7:30 am after they came off night shift (I used to eat bagels with mustard, tomato and onion at those diner meetings -- High Carb Darkness days) and watching them walk through the door in tears because they couldn't give their patients the care they deserve. To work through a twelve hour shift on your feet, eating nothing, not even going to the bathroom, every moment holding the lives of critically ill people in your hands, and then to finally leave knowing that you weren't physically able to do everything that your patients needed. That there was a man who had to wear a diaper because you didn't have time to put him on the bedpan. To hear the call bell going off in a room where an old woman is frightened and in pain and alone and to know that you can't go to her, because you're giving life-saving care to the patient in the room next to her. The nurses come in crying at 7:30 am, and by 9 they're about to fall asleep in their diner coffee, but they have a vision of how, by taking collective action, they can change things at the hospital.

And you, the organizer, drive back to the office blasting cheesy Disney soundtracks as loud as your little Geo Prizm will play them, rejoicing in the beauty of life, because you're person lucky enough to be there at the moment when those nurses realize that they have power, that they can change their world.

And then you call the nurses a few days later to find out if they've talked to their co-workers like they said they would. And they don't pick up the phone, and they don't call you back. You call two days later and a teenager answers the phone, says, "Yeah, I'll go get her," and then comes back a minute later and says, "Uh, she uh, isn't here. Can I take a message?"

And because you're an organizer, you know what happened. She got to work, started talking to a fellow nurse about the union, and the nurse said, "Are you crazy? You're going to get fired for this!"

Or her manager called her in and said, "Look, I hear people have been talking union. If you get the union in here, I won't be able to do favors for you anymore. If your son gets sick again, I won't be able to let you take time off to take him to the doctors. You remember how flexible I was with your schedule last time he was sick."

The nurse manager doesn't know that she's lying -- she's just repeating what the anti-union consultants told her to say. But the damage is real: the nurse is scared that standing up for herself at work by organizing will hurt her family.

It's up to me to repair the damage, to sense the question behind the question when people ask "Is this true, what my manager told me? Will we lose flexibility if we get the union?"

One of my strengths as an organizer has been my ability to cut through what people were saying to get to what they meant. An advantage to organizing in the same industry for so long was that I learned the playing field very well. I learned what it felt like to be a nurse, not as well as if I had actually worked in the hospital, but through thousands of in depth conversations, I learned exactly where it hurt. I used to think of myself as someone who cared for the people who care for patients. An organizer is often the only person who actually cares what your day was like at work. And for nurses, who don't just take care of critically ill people at the hospital but who care for their spouses, their children, their communities... no one takes care of them. I listen, I convince them that they matter, and that they have the power to make it different.

When their co-workers and their managers start attacking them, they attack me. They feel the pressure, and they direct their fear and anger at me.

The emotional dance of leading workers though the maze of an organizing campaign involves pushing them forward, only to have them come running back, mad as hell that you pushed them, then focusing them again on the goal of changing things at their hospital, and sending them out there again, always talking to their co-workers. You develop close relationships in this process, but they are by their very nature one-sided. You are an organizer, not a person. Organizing can be hell on your personal life because the hours are out of control and the work is so absorbing that it's sometimes hard to talk to people who aren't also organizers. I just got tired of trying to explain my work to other people. Oddly enough, one of the few times in the last year or so that I've had a long discussion with non-organizers about what I do may have been a cause of the dramatic change in my life that I'll eventually tell you about. That and the inability to locate a corkscrew in all of Charleston.

It's especially hard after a campaign is over. Even if you win, there's a sense of loss because this thing that has completely taken over your life for about nine months is done. Even if you stay to work on the first contract campaign, the urgency is never there again.

If you lose, it's hell. I remember after I lost that campaign in 1998, it was a good three months before I felt even vaguely okay. To see people you've worked closely with systematically turned by a series of carefully crafted lies, all constructed to instill fear and a sense of futility, can make you pretty depressed. But even at the time I knew that I was building up the emotional strength to be able to lead and win much bigger campaigns.

And as we all know by now, I did. After we shut down that campaign in Trenton (never could get enough people to even meet, and one thing that you learn as an organizer really, really early on, is that you have to see people face to face. Funny story about that sometime later.) Then I went on to work on a campaign at Cooper Hospital, in Camden, New Jersey. It has 820 registered nurses -- a huge bargaining unit -- and my best friend Lisa had been working on it for some time. Back in those days we were twin organizers, and in addition to doing the same job, we also ate all the same lowfat vegan foods. We look nothing alike, but people used to confuse us because we were basically interchangable.

Lisa had been leading the campaign for some time, and I came on as second in command and hatchet girl. I've always been pretty good at playing bad cop, and I was able to push the nurses pretty hard since I didn't already have the close personal relationships. I still remember one organizing committee meeting where it was my role to explain to the nurses that we just weren't going to file for an election unless they could get more of their co-workers to sign union cards. [Union cards are the things people sign when they're sure they want to organize the union. They're always afraid to sign them because they're afraid of relatilation from management, and that's not an irrational fear.] Workers want to believe their friends when they say, "I'll vote yes, but I won't sign a card." However, about 999 times out of 1000, that person votes no. So it's our job as organizers to deliver the bad news and move forward.

We filed with a very narrow majority on Cooper. It's always hard to decide when to file for an election, because the standard formulas really don't work. "Never file with less than 60% on cards," say most organizers. That's just wrong. Learning when to file is knowing your people well enough that you know you'll hold your cards -- how many of those who signed will vote yes. Management always manages to turn some people who are on cards, so you have to figure it out. My formula is that meetings = yes votes. Meaning, almost the exact number of nurses who will meet with you, voluntarily, outside of work (we can't meet with people at work -- the boss won't let us onto the property, though they do zillions of mandatory anti-union meetings on work time, and the workers are forced to attend.) If someone refuses to meet, she's telling you that on some level, she's uncomfortable with the union idea. We set things up so that nurses can meet anytime, any place, at their conveneince -- in a diner, a Dunkin Donuts, their own homes, wherever. That's a lot of why my job has had a very on-call nature to it. I've done a lot of meetings very early in the morning, and I've done quite a few after the 3 pm - 11 pm shift.

On Cooper, we had met with 365 nurses. We had somewhere over 400 cards. We were fairly sure that the unit was around 775 -- it got packed at the end with some people who hadn't worked there in awhile, due to an agreement whose complexity is not important here, but it's a story that's boring enough to put you to sleep on a transatlantic flight someday, so file it away in case you need me to tell it later.

So it was narrow. We debated for hours and hours about whether or not to file. Lisa wanted to file -- it was her campaign, her baby, and she had confidence in her people. Now Lisa was the best organizer I ever knew... she had a kind of vision at 25 that most organizers never get in their entire lives. One of the saddest days for the modern labor movement, in my opinion, was the day that Lisa decided not to organize anymore. She used to say that you just have a certain number of campaigns in you, and that she had used up all of hers. She's going to be a great lawyer now, so what is organizing's loss is the legal profession's gain, and I'm happy for her success. She's also about to marry the only person on earth who actually gets all of my pop music references -- hi Steve! Steve and I instantly bonded when we met on Jan. 3, 2000 (freakish memory for dates) over pop music when we discovered that we have the same very favorite, very obscure Billy Joel song. I knew that Steve would always be a good friend when we figured out that we had that in common. Good thing, because I'm the maid of honor in their wedding in March.

So anyway... Lisa wanted to file, but the decision wasn't hers alone. Larry (organizing director, our boss), Lisa and I talked for hours, and Larry and I talked on the phone for hours about it as well. We felt like we could hold the people we had, but it was a big risk. In the end, we decided to go for it.

We won by 101 votes. We thought we would win, but not by that much. And we were sufficiently unsure that I was dreading the vote count. Management had wanted a large number of people who hadn't worked in the last few months included in the vote, and to avoid long legal delays, we agreed. Most of those people had neither met nor signed, and our efforts to track them down and talk to them were not particularly fruitful. In union elections, almost everyone always votes, especially if it's close. And if you're not sure someone is a yes, they're a no. So we had counted all those people as no's, and assumed they'd vote. That had us winning, but on such a razor thin margin that we couldn't be sure.

Well, we the formula meetings = yes votes held true, and we won. And those people who really didn't work at Cooper, for the most part, didn't show up. [You might think it obvious that they wouldn't, but you're wrong: the strategy of packing the unit had worked on the Fletcher Allen 1998 campaign, where the union lost, and I went back and ran the re-run in 2002. Same anti-union consultant. It worked for two reasons: there weren't a lot of hospitals to work at in the area, so when people were called at home by their managers and asked to vote, they were more likely to do so because they might want to work there again; and management, we are fairly sure, paid people to come in and vote, even though they were not scheduled to work.]

So we won 370 - 269, and there was Larry, tears streaming down his face, looking at the biggest victory that union had ever had. There was little tiny Lisa, mid-twenties, shorter than I am (and that's short) signing the paper that you have to sign with the results. There was the anti-union consultant, looking stunned. And I looked over at Larry, gestured to management's side, and said, "Hey, we're just as surprised as you are!" (Of course I said it very quietly, so that only Larry heard me... one must always be polite and professional!)

The moral of the story is, sometimes you take a chance, and sometimes you win big. Larry used to say that if you never lose, you're not filing enough.

One of the lessons I've tried to teach VLC is that you have to take risks, be willing to go in there and get your heart kicked out, in order to win big. As you get older and you get better, you learn more about how to calculate your risks, but that doesn't stop you from taking them. It means being willing to take the big chances, not because you're sure you'll win, but because you know you can handle the consequences of losing, and get up to fight another day, confident in the knowledge that that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger (though I don't think that's why CR works... it would be such a pity to reduce a process as interesting as CR to a well-known cliche, wouldn't it?)

On Fletcher Allen, that giant campaign in Vermont that I won in 2002, I knew exactly when to file. I could see the trajectory of meetings and signatures so clearly that I used to predict a month in advance how many nurses would have met by the next organizing committee meeting. [It also really scared management's lawyers at the vote count that I had memorized the entire list of almost 1200 nurses' names and what department they worked in, but my memory was somewhat legendary in Vermont by that time. When information is important to me, I find it easier to carry it around in my head than to have to keep referring to a piece of paper.]

The real risk on Fletcher Allen was leaving a very comfortable position in New Jersey to live in Vermont, where I really knew no one, and lead a giant campaign that had very unclear prospects for success. People had been trying to organize Fletcher Allen since the 70's. That was a big risk that paid off in the biggest success of my organizing career, a once in a lifetime win.

I was saying to one of my CR brothers the other day (actually, I was writing it, but it seems like talking if you write all the time so I'll observe the convention of referring to it it as such) as we were discussing the topic of taking big risks that I've been willing to jump from very high heights because I'm confident I'll land on my feet.

I'll admit that it's hard to remember that during those moments when you're in free fall.

But it's part of what made me a good organizer, and it's part of who I am.

In the immortal words of Van Halen, "Might as well jump!"


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