Stewards Councils and Community Coalitions
Some problems are so big that it takes more than a good stewards council to solve them. Budget shortfalls, outsourcing, business closings, political corruption, health care and education crises, the war—you need a lot of clout to take on these types of issues.
On its own, even a strong stewards council doesn’t have this power, but it can provide a solid foundation for building campaigns around these problems. To take on bigger problems, labor needs to reach out to local communities, and stewards councils can serve as the spark behind community-labor coalitions.
For many years there has been a budget crisis in Los Angeles County, but in 2002, it reached a breaking point. The county announced that due to the big budget shortfall ($700 million in the Department of Health Services alone) it was going to close all 28 county health clinics, shut three hospital emergency rooms, close two hospitals, and lay off 8,000 health workers.
The stewards councils at the major county hospitals went to the leaders of their union, Service Employees (SEIU) Local 660, to plan a campaign against the cuts. They decided to put a proposition on the November ballot to raise money to save the health system.
While many stewards wanted to mandate that businesses and the very wealthy pay a slightly higher tax to cover these expenses, the union ultimately decided to support a proposition that would slightly raise property taxes.
The proposition was titled Measure B. It would raise $168 million per year, enough to save the emergency rooms and the county trauma system.
SEIU Local 660 spearheaded the formation of a large labor-community coalition, the Coalition for Healthy Communities. Meetings were held at county health facilities, led by stewards and union staff, and stewards signed up hundreds of health care workers to help on the campaign.
Joel Solis, a registered nurse and steward at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center in East Los Angeles, remembers:
“The union began the campaign with a series of trainings at work about the budget shortfall and the threat to the entire Los Angeles Emergency Trauma Network. We reserved meeting rooms in the hospital and put out leaflets inviting people to come at lunch, and we provided free pizza and soft drinks. Hundreds of our co-workers attended and over 100 signed up to be Health Care Advocates.
“We then did trainings with these advocates, and they got thousands of signatures from their co-workers and in community outings on petitions to stop the cutbacks. They also got people to do phone-banking and precinct-walking.
“I did precinct-walking in South Central and East Los Angeles and walked in some neighborhoods where almost every other house was a union household. The response to our campaign was very strong. There is potential to form permanent labor-community groups in these precincts.”
WORKING WITH CHURCHES
Large community meetings were also held in churches, schools, and community centers throughout the county. Lavon Luster, an ambulance medical technician, union steward, and youth pastor at New Covenant Christian Church, spoke to ministers all across Los Angeles County.
Says Luster: “I got a group of union members to help, along with about 30 young people from the churches. I spoke at area councils, which are made up of preachers from many churches.
“They agreed to take boxes of Measure B literature to distribute to their congregations. As a group, they speak to 10,000–20,000 parishioners weekly. And their congregations have a very high percentage of voters.”
Scores of city councils endorsed Measure B and got the word out in their cities. We also raised money for television and radio commercials.
On November 5, Measure B passed by 73 percent. Both hospitals slated for closing were saved, as were the 8,000 county jobs, but many of the neighborhood health clinics were closed. By early 2003, there was some improvement in the economy, but the continuing budget shortfall led the County Board of Supervisors to announce that they would close Rancho Los Amigos, the county’s world-renowned rehabilitation hospital.
The county health system is funded with both state and federal money, and the county supervisors said that the Bush Administration told them there wasn’t enough money available in the federal budget to adequately fund Rancho hospital.
Patty Margaret, a nurse and union steward, took the lead in putting together a campaign to save Rancho. Local 660 stewards quickly set up a tent city on the front lawn of the hospital and invited the community to join in daily protests.
Stewards reached out to organizations that work with people needing rehabilitation and to groups working on other issues that had a direct link to the hospital. A lawsuit was also filed to bar closure of the medical center.
HEALTHCARE, NOT WAR
In February 2003, the United States. launched its war in Iraq. In speeches, one-on-one discussions, and leaflets about the proposed Rancho closing, we pointed out the folly of closing a hospital that specialized in treating people with serious gunshot wounds, head trauma, paralysis, and amputations—exactly the kinds of injuries U.S. soldiers would be coming home with from Iraq.
We wrote a fact sheet that noted the cost of one B-2 bomber ($2 billion) would easily cover the entire budget shortfall in Los Angeles County.
We reached out to organizations working on health care, social services, independent living centers, and antiwar activism. As part of our weekly protests in front of Rancho, we organized two days of demonstrations against the war under the slogan, “Healthcare, Not Warfare.”
We brought a group of 50 health care workers, community supporters, and patients (some on gurneys and in wheelchairs) to the street in front of the hospital with signs that said, “Stop the Cutbacks,” “End the War,” and “Money for Healthcare, Not Warfare.”
Passing cars honked and waved in a show of support.
Ultimately, the fight to save Rancho succeeded, largely for two reasons. First, workers multiplied their power many times by building coalitions with the community. Second, we broadened our appeal by helping people see the connection between the budget shortfall and the war.
For more information on building labor-community coalitions, contact
. A longer account of the Measure B campaign is available in A Troublemakers Handbook 2. Order a copy.