School's in Session for New York Troublemakers

Workshops ranged from the shop floor (Dealing with Difficult Supervisors) to city politics (what to do when Mayor Bloomberg is gone). Photo: Dan Lutz.

Around 200 activists—from Teamsters to teachers, critical care nurses to clerical workers, social workers to subway operators—came out to the New York Troublemakers School last weekend for a solid dose of skills and inspiration.

In the opening plenary, an ICU nurse told the story of how her union, the New York State Nurses (NYSNA), led the fight to keep her hospital from closing.

“It started with three of us,” she said. But their numbers grew quickly, as word spread.

Despite the hospital’s high utilization and good quality service, the owners of Long Island College Hospital—which is located in the well-heeled Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn—simply wanted to cash in on the valuable real estate.

Faced with similar pressures from investors, other hospitals around the city have closed. But the nurses won their struggle, and kept LICH “open for care.”

Saturday’s workshops included popular Labor Notes standards like “Beating Apathy” and “Just Cause: How to Win Discipline Cases.” The skill-building in these workshops goes far beyond what most unions cover in their internal education.

In “Dealing with Difficult Supervisors” (which overflowed out the door), Teamsters Local 805 President Sandy Pope emphasized that, even when a union staffer might be able to address some issues herself, it’s better to get more workers involved in solving collective problems.

When we hit the limits of what arbitrators will agree to (which is less and less these days), involving as many workers as possible not only speeds up the resolution but also builds confidence for the next struggle.

Many workshops featured rousing stories about shop-floor conflicts—and victories. Others highlighted perspectives on the broader political questions we face in the city.

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A panel on “A Union Agenda for New York after Mayor Bloomberg” surveyed the various forces lining up to succeed him in this year’s election. Activists had a range of ideas about how to engage.

After NYSNA turned the hospital-closure fight, which was considered a lost cause, into daily headline news, said union leader Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, politicians came to them, eager to be associated with what became a winning campaign.

Others said union members should join their local party clubs (the lowest level of Democratic and Republican organization in the city) and pressure officials higher up in the party structures.

Wrapping up the afternoon, kindergarten teacher and Chicago Teachers Union activist Nate Rasmussen talked about CTU’s historic struggle against the austerity politics of Mayor (and Democratic Party leader) Rahm Emmanuel.

He described daily downtown rallies of 50,000 people during their strike last fall—for a union with just under 30,000 members—showing the deep support of public school parents and students for their teachers.

Troublemakers Schools are a great way to learn skills to enforce your contract and build power at work, but more than that, they help us build a movement that is bigger than any one of us. While it’s great to learn these skills ourselves, it’s even more important to bring our co-workers, so that we can act on all that we’ve learned together.

By all those measures, this Troublemakers School was a huge success!

Nate Franco is a social worker at Harlem Hospital and a member of AFSCME Local 768.

Labor Notes is planning more Troublemakers Schools in the Twin Cities, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Chicago, among others. To inquire about bringing a school to your city, write to Samantha Winslow at Samantha[at]labornotes[dot]org.