Baltimore Since Beth Steel: Hopkins Hospital Workers Fight for 15

Originally published in Dissent on June 26, 2014, co-authored with Shawn Gude.
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In July 1959, workers at the world’s largest steel mill—the Baltimore-area Sparrows Point plant—went on strike. Hundreds of thousands of United Steelworkers members from across the country joined them, flatlining production for months. When they finally returned to work, they’d achieved another substantial wage increase, the latest in a series of impressive postwar wins. In working-class cities like Baltimore, it paid to be a steelworker.

This Friday, fifty-five years later, about ten miles northwest of Sparrows Point in East Baltimore, 2,000 low-wage workers at the internationally renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital are expected to begin their own strike—the second in as many months. Represented by 1199SEIU, the health care workers union Martin Luther King, Jr. famously referred to as his favorite union, they, too, seek higher pay. Despite working full-time hours, many earn too little to support themselves and their families—leaving them no choice but to scramble for Medicaid, food stamps, and housing assistance.

One of those workers is Kiva Robbins. Although she’s worked at Johns Hopkins Hospital for the past twelve years, Robbins, an environmental services employee, earns just $12.20 an hour. When her rent increased last fall, she found herself unable to pay the bills for herself and her two sons and was forced to move into a relative’s tiny apartment. Prior to losing her home, she had already been relying on food stamps and other forms of public assistance to supplement her Hopkins pay.

SEIU, still in negotiations with Hopkins Hospital, is fighting for a contract that would relieve such economic insecurity by mandating a minimum wage of $14, or $15 for employees with at least fifteen years of experience. (Currently, a quarter of unionized employees make less than $11.47 an hour.)

With Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System, in conjunction with Johns Hopkins University, ranking as Baltimore’s largest private employer, the outcome of the SEIU campaign holds tremendous implications for the future of the Baltimore economy—and countless other struggling postindustrial cities.

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On May 10, thousands convened in Baltimore’s downtown Inner Harbor to support the hospital workers’ efforts. Dubbed the “Mother’s March & Rally for Justice,” the event took place at McKeldin Square, the same spot where Occupy Baltimore camped out three years ago. Buses of SEIU members and supporters from New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington, D.C. joined the local community, hoisting signs that read Prestige Doesn’t Feed Our Families! and Honor Mothers! End Poverty Pay for Families at Hopkins! Annie Henry, an elderly instrument processor who has been working with Johns Hopkins Medicine for forty-five years, recalled when Coretta Scott King came to Baltimore in 1969 to help the hospital workers in their initial unionization campaign. “Never in forty-five years did I think I’d still be doing this,” Henry said. “We want to be paid our worth.”

In 2010, Johns Hopkins employed nearly 34,000 workers in Baltimore, including 20,000 at the hospital. So great is Hopkins’ clout in the labor market that a substantial concession on wages would likely boost pay across the city. “It would have a great effect,” said John Reid, executive vice president of 1199 and leader of the negotiations with Hopkins. “Other employers would have to be as competitive as Johns Hopkins to recruit and retain staff in Baltimore.”

The economic picture in Baltimore ranks among the worst in the nation. U.S. Census Bureau data reveals that the poverty rate in Baltimore has risen by about 5 percentage points since the 2008 recession, leaving a quarter of all residents, and more than 37 percent of all children, living in poverty. The median annual income among Baltimoreans is $33,000; for those without a high school degree, that number drops down to $20,000. Of the nearly one-fifth of all adults in Baltimore without a high-school degree, some two-thirds are unemployed or do not participate in the labor force at all.

According to the Jobs Opportunities Task Force (JOTF), a policy organization that conducts research on the Maryland workforce, the Baltimore metro area lost more than 140,000 jobs between 1969 and 2009 —95,000 of them in Baltimore alone. Today, just 4 percent of Baltimore area jobs are in manufacturing.

Baltimore’s service sector—comprised primarily of the hospitality, retail, health care, and human services industries—has steadily grown while every other sector has declined. Requiring very little education or formal training, modern service sector jobs also offer few opportunities for career advancement and require skills not easily transferable to other fields. And, in contrast to the goods-producing jobs of the manufacturing era, service jobs are typically non-unionized and low-paying. The increase in demand has been greatest for health care workers; JOTF found that as of 2009, a full 20 percent of Baltimore jobs were in the health care and social assistance sector.

Former manufacturing hubs like Baltimore have given way to “eds and meds” economies, or cities where universities, colleges, and medical facilities are now some of the largest private employers. In Rochester and Baltimore, “eds and meds” make up more than 13 percent of the city’s total employment. In Philadelphia, that number hits 37 percent, and in Camden, New Jersey, a staggering 43 percent. In Cleveland, meanwhile, four of the top five employers fall into the “eds and meds” category.

An “eds and meds” unionization battle similar to the one at Hopkins Hospital is taking place at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), where SEIU is working to organize more than 10,000 of UPMC’s workers, and to push the hospital system—the region’s largest employer—to increase their pay. Health care workers in Pittsburgh echo their Baltimore counterparts, decrying the “poverty pay” that leaves them unable to afford basic necessities. “[W]hen UPMC workers succeed,” Neal Bisno, president of SEIU Healthcare PA, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “it will spark workers across the country.”

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Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point plant anchored the Baltimore economy for decades. Built in the late nineteenth century and purchased by “Beth Steel” in 1916, the mill steadily churned out steel through the 1920s, but it wasn’t until WWII that production really ramped up. Steel, central to the fight against fascism, was a coveted commodity. The increased production brought more jobs to the region, attracting thousands of workers. Black steelworkers, many of whom had migrated from southern states, endured deplorable racial discrimination—Sparrows Point was segregated until the early 1960s, and blacks were systematically passed over for promotions—but the pay was still better than down South. It was tough, grimy, dangerous work for blacks and whites alike. Longtime steelworkers bore the marks of their years in the mill—small face hemorrhages, indelible gashes, missing fingers. Its redeeming quality was the remuneration.

Yet the high pay hadn’t come without struggle. When radicals and progressive unionists split from the more conservative American Federation of Labor in the 1930s to establish the Committee for Industrial Organization (later renamed the Congress of Industrial Organizations), organizing steel—then the country’s largest industry—was at the top of their list. Sparrows Point workers faced severe intimidation during the organizing drive. Beth Steel, as veteran Baltimore journalist Mark Reutter documents in his 2004 book Making Steel, equipped company police with “several boxcars of guns and ammunition” and hired Pinkertons to spy on organizers and assemble dossiers on union-sympathizing workers. In 1941, two years after the National Labor Relations Board ordered the company to cease its illegal anti-union chicanery, Sparrows Point workers voted overwhelmingly to unionize. Over the next twenty years—abetted by absent foreign competition and hefty profits across the industry—they repeatedly struck for higher wages, better working conditions, and more generous benefits.

Industry-wide unionization and centralized labor-management bargaining—in which the negotiated contract between the United Steelworkers and U.S. Steel set the standard for the entire industry—gave steelworkers tremendous collective power. And they weren’t shy about exercising it. Between the end of WWII and 1959, steelworkers walked out six times, in work stoppages so crippling that the president repeatedly intervened. It took these militant, habitual strikes—not simply high profits or a monopolistic industry—to boost living standards; nothing was conferred on workers through sheer management magnanimity.

Sparrows Point loomed large over Baltimore, both physically and economically. Located in an unincorporated community just southeast of Charm City, the steel mill was the world’s largest by the late 1950s. Employment eclipsed 30,000. Even twenty years later, after foreign imports eroded American steel’s dominance and company shortsightedness caused Beth Steel to lose ground to competitors, Sparrows Point still employed well over 15,000, strengthening the hand of workers across the labor market. In its heyday, and even in decades of relative decline, the plant provided a “family wage”—compensation sufficient to raise a family on a single income. No doubt there was a low-paying periphery. And the model, which rendered wives economically dependent on their husbands, reinforced patriarchy in the home. But the high-wage, heavily unionized center—of which Sparrows Point was the archetype—provided the foundation for working-class prosperity.

Bethlehem Steel, in other words, played the economic role that Johns Hopkins University could play today.

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Union officials estimate that raising the wages of their members to a $14 minimum wouldadd only an extra $3 million to the Hopkins’s annual payroll expenses, when the non-profit hospital last recorded an operating surplus of $145 million. But the administration has been recalcitrant. “Hopkins has been using the excuse that the ‘economy is too uncertain’ to raise wages,” said 1199 spokesperson Jim McNeill.

Johns Hopkins Medicine spokeswoman Kim Hoppe said in an email that the hospital “strives to provide a positive work experience” for their employees through competitive salaries and benefits. And Ronald Peterson, president of Johns Hopkins Hospital, wrote in the Baltimore Sun that their “commitment to fair compensation” includes a benefits package that, among other things, supports professional development classes and money to offset the cost of their children’s college tuition. Yet, for many who live in poverty, unable to afford rent or child care, those types of benefits often look better on paper than they turn out to be in practice. “It would be almost impossible for me to take advantage of the college tuition benefits President Peterson mentions,” Kiva Robbins wrote in a response in the Sun.

Despite the workers’ compelling moral case for a raise, they could stand to be in a stronger position at the bargaining table. To be sure, SEIU membership is growing: in 2001, the last year SEIU workers at Hopkins Hospital went on strike, there were 1,600. Today, 2,000 are represented by the union. And in 2009, 1199 launched their “Heart of Baltimore” campaign, an attempt to increase the visibility and wages of area health care workers. But over the past decade, Reid admitted, “there’s been no real organizing at Johns Hopkins,” and the union still only represents one-tenth of the hospital’s total workforce.

Moreover, in contrast to other SEIU locals, 1199 has never organized Hopkins nurses. This is in part due to the general difficulty of organizing—unfavorable labor law and company intimidation doom many such attempts—but according to McNeill, there has never been a serious effort in the local’s forty-five-year history to try and bring nurses into their union. “It would make us stronger, without a doubt,” Reid acknowledged. While increasing membership anywhere in the hospital would build worker power, organizing nurses—the most sizable bloc of skilled, difficult-to-replace employees in a hospital—is especially important. It’s not an overstatement to say that organizing nurses could be the fulcrum by which Hopkins workers’ middling pay becomes standard-setting.  

Hopkins appears to recognize this as-yet-untapped power. In an April statement, the hospital said, “Our patients and their families are always our first priority, so it is important they understand that the employees represented by 1199SEIU work primarily in service and maintenance jobs and are not involved in providing direct patient care.” Employing a strategy in which SEIU would represent both nurses and maintenance workers—those responsible for “providing direct patient care” and those who do other essential, but poorly compensated work—is the only way health care workers can approximate the might that Sparrows Point workers once had.

Johns Hopkins Hospital, fulfilling its avowed mission of improving community health, could be the bulwark of a broadly prosperous, union-dense local economy. While some have charged that employment growth will eventually plateau in “eds and meds” economies, Johns Hopkins already employs enough workers to raise wages throughout Baltimore. But workers themselves must midwife this alternative model. For all its rhetoric about healthy communities, Hopkins won’t willingly pay every worker a decent wage, any more than Bethlehem Steel would have. And while in some ways the contemporary workplace is less amenable to unionization, workers at places like Hopkins Hospital do have one thing on their side: “eds and meds” institutions can’t pack up and leave. The outsourcing threat, so chastening to manufacturing workers, isn’t in play.

The endpoint of these postindustrial economies isn’t predetermined. Essential to effecting a pro-worker sea change will be dogged organizing, collective action, and political support. The right to live with dignity and economic security, in Baltimore and elsewhere, won’t be secured without a fight.

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