Harlem Hospital workers rally against cuts

Harlem Hospital workers rallied today to stop proposed cuts in the number of doctors on staff. A few hundred people came out to a rally across the street from the hospital, one of New York City’s 11 public hospitals and one of the few health care options for the uninsured.

The Doctors Council SEIU, which represents physicians at Harlem, called the demonstration in protest of a layoffs as the hospital ends its affiliation with Columbia University Medical Center. For the past 60 years, CUMC has been contracted to provide medical staff: currently, 20 out of out of 220 physicians will likely be laid off. Another 20 to 30 doctors plan to resign in protest. The doctors’ concerns were outlined in two “Open Letters” to the City’s administration and to Columbia University (first printed in the Amsterdam News and reproduced below.

The Committee of Interns and Residents SEIU and a few DC37 locals also turned out members. The list of speakers included a “Who’s Who” of Harlem elected officials: David Dinkins, Al Sharpton, Charlie Rangel, State Senator Bill Perkins, local NAACP President Hazel Dukes and Charles Barron.

These cuts, along with the rest of the recent layoffs across the City’s public health care system (Health and Hospitals Corporation, HHC), are part of the so-called “Road Ahead” plan developed by the Bloomberg administration and Alan Aviles (president of HHC). This plan, developed with the help of Deloitte Consulting firm, calls for a total of 10% reduction in the 40,000 member HHC workforce over 4 the next years. True to form for the Bloomberg administration, Aviles cites the importance of “Making Hospitals Lean”, based on a model borrowed from Toyota’s management strategy (see the Solidarity pamphlet “Lean Production: Why Work is Worse Than Ever, and What’s the Alternative? for an in depth analysis). Needless to say, cars and healthcare a different, but both plans are thoroughly anti-worker.

The rally today shows a bit of energy from some of the unions at Harlem Hospital (though with fairly weak coordination or preparation among the rank-and-file). With a decent turnout and lively rally, we heard promises from the politicians that they’d “start the negotiations in earnest now!” and “make Bloomberg find the money!” But with no solid next-steps for building the power among the workers needed to force the City to back down, we’re left to wonder if this is the beginning of a campaign of escalating pressure, or if this was the extent of the strategy.

Open Letter to President Lee Bollinger, Dean Lee Goldman, and the Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York

Published: Tuesday, October 5, 2010 2:47 PM EDT

Medical/Dental Board of Harlem Hospital Center

Dear Colleagues:

Harlem stood behind you when you needed its support for the Manhattanville expansion. Why do you abandon it now, sitting idly by as medical care at Harlem Hospital is outsourced?

For nearly sixty years, Columbia has supported Harlem Hospital in providing quality care to its neediest. Why do you abandon it now, as neurosurgery and rehabilitation medicine services are being shut down?

Harlem Hospital’s Level I Trauma Center leads the state and the nation in injury care and prevention. Why do you abandon it now, by allowing loss of these vital services to threaten its trauma designation?

Harlem Hospital is the only reliable source of specialized tertiary care for the citizens of our community. Why do you abandon it now, as medical and surgical specialty services wither for lack of sufficient staff?

Columbia’s support of Harlem Hospital has brought our community many of America’s finest physicians. Why do you abandon it now, letting the City bring in less accomplished doctors just to save a few dollars?

Harlem Hospital has championed Columbia’s mission to “discover, educate, care, lead” for generations. Why do you abandon it now, as training programs attracting minority doctors and scientists are gutted?

The Medical/Dental Board of Harlem Hospital sees clearly the fiscal challenges facing the City and the University in the current economy. Yet we also recognize the City Comptroller’s recent report citing alleged “failures” of monitoring and management on the part of both the Health and Hospitals Corporation and Columbia University, for what so plainly it is—a thinly veiled, shamelessly cynical,
politically motivated excuse to divert a multimillion dollar contract to a favored “vendor” with little experience and a limited record.

The Medical/Dental Board of Harlem Hospital has also not forgotten what ensued at a sister institution a dozen years ago, when the Health and Hospitals Corporation likewise outsourced medical care to nonacademic doctors. What followed was real scandal after real scandal, where real patients died, leading to months of monitoring by State and Federal agencies—unlike the carefully orchestrated, trumped up “scandal” regarding echocardiograms at Harlem Hospital that hurt no one, the full story of which is not being told, because it was easier to blame Columbia doctors than callous administrators.

In truth, Columbia doctors at Harlem Hospital are not only great physicians, they are great people. They do not deserve to be tarred with the brush of alleged incompetence, or worse, when their only “failing” has been to try to do more with less, as staff are cut, their leadership is decimated by firings without cause or due process, and their pleas on behalf of their patients are ignored by heartless executives who have tragically forgotten that care for our neediest is a right guaranteed by the New York City Charter.

No doubt, Columbia is rightly disgusted by the ongoing efforts to paint it as villain, and rightly dubious of a one sided contractual relationship which encourages the City to treat our University as a cash cow that it simultaneously starves and milks. For it is well known the University has lost tens of millions of dollars over the decades in care it provided that was not properly reimbursed by the City, always with the same lame excuse—there were a few undotted “i”s and uncrossed “t”s in the documentation submitted.

We are Harlem’s doctors. We have no time for politics. Patient care is our calling. We are loyal not only to the people we are privileged to serve, we are loyal to our University, because we know far better than anyone what will happen to patient care in our community when we are no longer able to find talented young doctors to join Columbia’s ranks via Harlem Hospital. It will rapidly deteriorate, and take Harlem back to the horrific days that forced the Health and Hospitals
Corporation to turn to us in the first place.

We implore you to stand and fight with us. A weakened “academic affiliation” simply cannot stand up against the power of a multibillion dollar Corporation, but our great University can. Columbia’s support of Harlem Hospital has never been more vital than it is today. We can unite to leverage the strengths of the University’s medical, nursing, public health, law, and business faculties to develop viable models for accountable care organizations that will serve the public health and the public good for years to come.

Columbia lives and works in the Harlem community we all call home. Harlem has never abandoned our great University, and will never do so, because its citizens realize the tremendous strength and vitality it brings our community. Yet the reverse is no less true. Harlem brings Columbia a richness of society and diversity that exists virtually nowhere else in the City, if not the world, serving as a constant reminder of why it exists at all—to find solutions to the problems that beset humankind, both globally, and locally.

We therefore call upon you to do what is right—help us care for our community, and our University.

Columbia faculty at Harlem Hospital, together with colleagues from Washington and Morningside Heights, can and will find ways to provide health care more effectively and efficiently to our community. Do not let the Health and Hospitals Corporation rob Harlem of its most precious healthcare resource— quality care by physicians and surgeons of the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons.

Respectfully yours,

Medical/Dental Board of Harlem Hospital Center

An Open Letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Comptroller John Liu, Chairman Michael Stocker, President Alan Aviles, and the Directors of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation

Published: Tuesday, October 5, 2010 2:45 PM EDT

Medical/Dental Board of Harlem Hospital Center

Dear Colleagues:

On behalf of the 350 physicians, dentists, and allied health personnel that comprise the Medical and Dental Staff of Harlem Hospital, we write to deplore the recent actions of the Health and Hospitals Corporation in moving to terminate its long standing financial affiliation with Columbia University.

For nearly sixty years, the Columbia doctors of Harlem Hospital have labored to provide high quality health care for the citizens of our community. We have come to this hospital to be part of both a great enterprise in care for the poor among us, and a great University that seeks to find solutions to the very problems that lead to material and social poverty, through delivery of health care to the Harlem community. Although much work remains to be done, much has already been accomplished.

A partial list follows:

  • Harlem has the lowest risk adjusted mortality rate of all six Health and Hospitals Trauma Centers.
  • Harlem’s Injury Prevention Program has decreased the rate of injuries to children by sixty percent.
  • Harlem’s Stroke Center has won several major awards for its innovative early recognition program.
  • Harlem has the only Baby Friendly Hospital, recognized for breastfeeding success, in New York City.
  • Harlem’s Bariatric Surgery program has the lowest mortality rate among all New York City hospitals.
  • Harlem’s Plastic Surgery program is among the best in New York City, yet is by far least the costly.

Needless to say, these impressive achievements, and others far too numerous to mention, will be jeopardized when the Columbia University faculty who brought them about are terminated at the end of this year. Sadly, the air of uncertainty created by the impending disaffiliation has already led to the exodus of many committed Columbia doctors who are rightly dismayed about the future of
Harlem Hospital and the community it serves under medical leadership that is more concerned about profits than patients.

Indeed, due to the untoward effects of the recent economic downturn, we are told that the Health and Hospitals Corporation can no longer afford the investment in healthcare that brought us the above triumphs. We are told that further education and research on the conditions that lead to the suboptimal health outcomes experienced by impoverished communities are luxuries that must wait until another day. We are told that physician groups affiliated with the Health and Hospitals Corporation must reconfigure to become “accountable care organizations” that share the financial risk with the hospitals in which they practice. Yet, they can hardly do so, when they are already paid less than half what they would earn in private practice, and practice plans associated with municipal hospitals have been able to collect no more than about ten cents on the dollar. This is not a road toward recovery; it is a march toward mediocrity.

We have nothing but great praise for those in the Health and Hospitals Corporation who have worked so hard to find a way for our municipal hospitals to escape the $1 billion structural deficit brought about by the perfect storm of skyrocketing pension costs, vanishing revenue streams, bankrupt state government, and Federal healthcare “reform” that denies reimbursement for routine health care of undocumented immigrants, while at the same time rightly mandating that they receive far more expensive emergency health care when the regular care being denied them results in deterioration in their medical conditions.

We also have nothing but sincere thanks for Mayor Bloomberg, who allocated $350 million to the Health and Hospitals Corporation to help offset its $1 billion operating deficit during the current fiscal year.

However, we have nothing but disdain for decisions that deny the citizens of Harlem timely access to neurosurgery and rehabilitation medicine services— decisions that directly threaten the trauma center and stroke center designations awarded to Harlem Hospital, centers that treat the very conditions that occur in greatest number in our community. We also decry the shortsighted financial
decisions to limit support for graduate medical education—since it will cost the Health and Hospitals Corporation nearly $500,000 to replace each resident trainee with far less comprehensively trained physician extenders.

Last, we find it nothing less than a disgrace that public officials are determined to disregard irrefutable evidence that medical services rendered by Columbia doctors at Harlem Hospital were indeed provided, and to deny that repeated requests to fill vacant positions in our Division of Cardiology were made, yet went unheeded, year after year, resulting in the large backlog of unread echocardiograms sensationally reported in the press—decisions we believe could only have been made for the purpose of terminating the relationship between the Health and Hospitals Corporation and Columbia University, despite nearly sixty years of honorable service to the community, and vast improvements in the health of its residents.

In Columbia’s place, we are told, a nonacademic affiliate will be retained to provide patient care at less cost. But for how long? The leadership of the Health and Hospitals Corporation cannot really believe that a physician group representing as many as 2,000 physicians across seven of its eleven
acute care hospitals will not be in a much stronger position than its current affiliates when it enters into collective bargaining. It also cannot truly think that a small physician group with an untested track record can take on such added responsibility within as short a time as a year, as is currently planned. Surely, it
cannot justify retaining two other academic institutions—the New York University and Mount Sinai Schools of Medicine—to provide medical services at Bellevue, Woodhull, Elmhurst, and Queens Hospital Centers, when its stated reason for terminating its Columbia affiliation is that academic affiliations are too costly.

If the Health and Hospitals Corporation were seriously interested in developing viable accountable care organizations in its facilities, logic dictates that it would turn to recognized experts in medicine, nursing, public health, law, and business to help it achieve this goal. Few institutions in New York City can provide such a depth and breadth of expertise across so many disciplines—Columbia University is one of them. We must therefore ask: what sense does it make for the Health and Hospitals Corporation to entrust the future of its medical operations to a small, inexperienced physician group, rather than an institution with the resources, and multiple levels of expertise, to find the best way forward—particularly when that institution has been part of the very fabric of the
City it serves for over two hundred fifty years?

It makes no sense at all. Thus we ask, in the name of the people of Harlem—those who will surely suffer most from the irrational decision to end the relationship between the Health and Hospitals Corporation and Columbia University—that you reverse this unwise decision before it is too late. Do
not take us back to the past. We have already been there. It has taken very many years of hard work by the Health and Hospitals Corporation and its medical school partners to engineer the remarkable success that recently has been realized. Do not destroy the very engines of that success—the partnerships that make it work.

Respectfully yours,

Medical/Dental Board of

Harlem Hospital Center

Immigrant Rights Protest at Mets Game - Exciting organizing!

Last friday there was a march and rally outside the Mets – Diamond Backs game at CitiField in Queens, NYC. The NYPD forced the rally to confine itself to a small pen across the street from the stadium, behind a fence and under a subway platform. As a result, the rally itself was almost totally unnoticeable for fans getting off of the train and going directly into the stadium (let alone if you parked in the lot right next to the stadium); could see or even hear the few hundred people gathered at that spot.

However, dozens of us abandoned the rally point and walked around the plaza outside the stadium passing out flyers about SB1070 along with big signs to hold up during the game (NO SB1070! BOYCOTT ARIZONA!, etc.). This was pretty effective, and i’d bet that almost everyone entering the stadium from the subway at least saw that something was being protested, and that it had something to do with immigration and Arizona. In addition to those efforts, there were about a half-dozen others who had bought tickets to the game and went in with carefully planned direct action. All student activists, mostly from CUNY, four people dropped two big banners off of the stadium, and another two jumped into the field and sprinted across with Mexican flags and t-shirts about SB1070. I didn’t even know this was happening until i saw folks later who showed me the press coverage of the protests (see below, including some GREAT full-page photos published in the Daily News on Saturday).

I think the way that the rally (with 1199, DC37 and other large endorsers), the targeted leafleting and direct action was very effectively coordinated in this action, and it seems to have worked! It seems to have created a media spectacle– something that is dramatic enough to catch people’s attention (complete with great photo ops), had a relatively informed audience for the drama (thanks to flyering the fans ahead of time), and all with solid ‘main-stream’ backing to lend credibility (i.e. the unions). This can’t substitute for the long, slow work of building our bases wherever we are rooted, but it certainly contributes to a vibrant movement! Lets hope this sort of creative organizing continues!

**************************************

A few links to the press coverage (not a comprehensive search):

NY1: Citi Field Becomes Battleground For Immigration Debate (pasted below)

Daily News: part of general coverage of game, under “LAW & DISORDER”; also Arizona anti-immigration bill protesters released after crashing New York Mets-Diamondbacks game

NY Times: Immigration Law Protesters Show Up at Citi Field

ESPN: Protesters arrested after entering field

AP (carried on FoxNews, 1010Wins, NBC Sports, Sports Illustrated and others i’m sure): Men carry Mexican flags on Mets field, protest: Fair or foul? Ariz. immigration law under fire with Diamondbacks in town

CNN: Immigration Protest Hits Baseball Park: Diamondbacks vs Mets

Citi Field Becomes Battleground For Immigration Debate

By: NY1 News

07/31/2010 01:49 PM

As protests over Arizona’s immigration law heat up in the city, a federal appeals court says it will step into the battle later this year.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals says this November it will hear a challenge by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who appealed a judge’s ruling blocking the law’s toughest sections.

That would give the state time to make changes to the legislation, which Brewer says she is considering.

Meanwhile, protestors gathered outside Citi Field in Flushing, Queens on Friday, where the Arizona Diamondbacks opened a weekend series with the New York Mets.

During the seventh inning, two men were arrested for running out onto the field carrying Mexican flags.

Diamondback outfielder Cole Gillespie told NY1 that the baseball team has nothing to do with Arizona’s law.

“Just because we’re from that state, they think that we represent that whole idea and notion. They’re going to want to protest us, but again, there’s nothing we can do, it’s out of our control,” said Gillespie. “And all we can do is go out there and play.”

Protesters said the demonstration at Citi Field was part of a growing national movement.

“The Diamondbacks are symbolic, but more importantly we’re telling Major League Baseball that they should follow its tradition of diversity, its tradition of respect,” said a protester.

“We’re happy that more and more people understand this and are protesting it not only here, but all over the country,” said another protester.

Some demonstrators also handed out leaflets asking Major League Baseball to move next year’s All-Star game out of Phoenix.

Yesterday, protests were held all over the country, including here in the city. Hundreds of demonstrators walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to a rally at Foley Square.

Right To The City - NYC: Making moves on housing

Turning luxury condos into truly affordable housing. Undocumented immigrants voting. Living wage economic development. Ending Welfare’s unpaid ‘work experience program.’ Permanently funded and protected community gardens. Schools replacing ‘fast food’ with produce from regional farms.

Can you imagine?

Well, that’s what an alliance of base-building community groups envisions for New York City.

A few weeks ago I went to a presentation of a broad ‘policy platform’ by Right To The City Alliance’s New York City chapter (RTTC-NYC), which includes over 20 base-building community organizations in working class communities of color across the city, many of which have memberships well into the thousands. The chapter first came together in 2006 to fight gentrification, then joined Right To The City when it was founded leading up to the US Social Forum in 2007. It’s also the largest chapter among the 8 chapters around the country: Boston, DC, LA, Miami, New Orleans, NYC, SF Bay Area and Providence.

Much of what the chapter has done since forming is strengthen the ties among the member groups and their respective membership bases. A central purpose of the ‘policy platform’ was to define the chapter’s politics and long-term vision, as well as chart out their collective work going forward. With that goal in mind, the platform was developed through an intensive process involving the membership of each of the member organizations, “written over the course of a year… urging the city to combat environmental racism, and ensuring that the unemployed get adequate services and that the employed receive a living wage.”

With that internal process wrapping up last fall, ‘condo conversion’ was selected as the first collective campaign based on the platform. Focusing on housing that lies vacant due to the speculative boom, they hope to make low-income housing out of the luxury developments that would otherwise have accelerated gentrification. In a survey of these developments RTTC-NYC hopes to complete in the next few months, the chapter has so far found over 600 buildings in which construction is stalled, partially completed or the building is completed but remains vacant. For example, one building in downtown Brooklyn has had its nearly 250 units on sale for over a year, with only 7% occupied (hardly surprising, considering the price is around $440,000 for a one-bedroom). Last July, Mayor Bloomberg proposed a “Housing Asset Renewal Program”, which would make affordable housing out of a paltry 400 vacant condo units. The work of RTTC-NYC makes it clear that Bloomberg’s plan is designed for show, not substance (assuming the developers would even agree to participate – which is unlikely by their own report).

The campaign will focus on six areas of the city where the member groups of Right to the City are concentrated, and will certainly involve direct action along with media, legislative and other tactics. The hope is that through this collective action, more and more members of each member-organization will gain experience in city-wide campaigns, laying the foundation for even more powerful campaigns down the road. Stay tuned!

Breaking into jail - a first time for everything

On Tuesday, Sept. 29th, the Private Health Insurance Must Go! coalition held two demonstrations targeting Aetna*: the first was a civil disobedience action targeting in which 17 people were arrested for occupying their office building; and the second was an afternoon rally with around 200 people marching from Bristol-Meyers Squibb (a pharmaceutical company whose medication was prohibitively expensive) to Aetna.

As PHIMG began organizing these actions, a national coalition called Mobilize for Healthcare had developed in an attempt to coordinate similar civil disobedience actions around the country (check their website for the other upcoming actions in other cities around the country in October). The hope was that the NYC action will help inspire a series of escalating actions to move the single-payer movement front and center in the national healthcare debates. This, at least, seems to have worked well. I’ve posted another article about the other protests since then, but here i’m just gonna comment on my first experience under state custody.

Once we were handcuffed and in the wagons, we began our long (about 27 hours!!) experience under state custody. Basically, state custody involved getting yelled at, waiting, waiting, getting yelled at, being threatened, waiting, being yelled at and then waiting some more. First we waited at a precinct, not knowing whether they’d release us from there or if they’d send us to ‘central booking’ to appear in front of a judge. In the precinct (somewhere around the Manhattan bridge I think), we were mostly alone (though had the company of a few people arrested for such egregious offenses as selling pirated DVDs on the street or having over-due parking tickets). we spent most of the next 11 hours singing, playing word games (like charades), telling stories and talking politics. The other folks I got arrested with were mostly involved in ACT-UP in the 80s and 90s, taking over government buildings and blocking streets to get HIV/AIDS treatments developed and made available. finally, we got some McDonalds burgers (the NYPD apparently has some arrangement with them and other quality food providers), felt sick, and were moved to ‘central booking’ for the second half of our ordeal.

Central Booking is at 100 Center Street, and it’s the main jail for anyone arrested in Manhattan who is going before a judge (I think the max you can stay there is like 4 days; after which you typically get sent to Rikers Island, according to other prisoners). the big difference between the precinct and central booking (which is affectionately referred to as ‘the tombs’) is that it is run by the Department of Corrections. These friendly public servants were way more obnoxious, threatening and generally brutal than the NYPD (yeah, I didn’t know it was possible either!). After about 5 hours we were moved from one cell to another (they do that sort of seemingly random shit all the time, just for kicks, apparently), we had this one corrections officer literally tell a group of 35 of us that: “You will follow all of my directions, and if you so much as step too far to one side or the other, physical force will be used to ensure your compliance. You have the right to defend yourself and fight back as you wish, but know that we all wear black gloves simply to help us fuck you up, and you will not win any fight. There are no cameras here, and no one to scream to for help. No one will complain and you will simply be fucked up until we feel like stopping. We wear these boots to smash your face; straight ‘boot therapy’ we call it.” Sweet guy, eh?

We stayed in central booking for about another 15 hours until we finally saw our lawyer and got in front of the judge. Lawyer said he’s hoping the judge would offer an Adjournment Contemplating Dismissal (an ACD: basically, we’re let go and as long as we’re not arrested again for 6 months, the arrest record disappears). However, judge didn’t offer that, and said something about 3 days of community service and we were given a court date in Dec. Lawyer said he’s going to argue for the ACD, and we may not even have to go back to court at all, but in any case, it won’t be anything more than a little community service and even that is unlikely. The whole court thing took about 5 min, and i was out around 11:30am on Wednesday (some of the women didn’t get out till later in the afternoon, however).

Before wrapping up, however, I have to say that despite being relatively familiar with how fucked up the criminal injustice system is, this experience really helped me understand it in a lot more depth. for example, probably at least 3/4 of the other prisoners were arrested on ‘quality of life’ charges (like personal-use quanitity drug possession and selling pirated DVDs), with a significant number of them possibly being completely fabricated (like an officer claiming to have seen you fail to pay a fare in the subway, despite a station attendant verifying that you did). Also, of about 75 other prisoners we saw in the tombs, only one other guy (besides half of our group of 6 men) was white, and he was picked up for something like drunk driving. A few concluding thoughts: the injustice system is about forcing society to accept a huge ‘civil’ policing system that can invade your life at any time, and this is justified largely by focusing on ‘quality of life’ issues (oh, and of course terrorism); also, in order to maintain itself, the system needs to be arresting people all the time, and so when a ‘collar’ is needed (explained to us as a cop needing another prisoner for ‘his quota’), it’s people of color who serve this purpose.

Everyone (including other prisoners and officers) was clear, however, that we were kinda like tourists: we actually had to try to get arrested in order to get to jail, we were with friends, we had legal support before, during and after our imprisonment, and we knew that we’d get out with about a day or so (i.e. the action was planned with specific knowledge of the likely legal implications). So, my experience was way easier from that of the others who did not try to break into jail, but were victims of a giant fucked up mess.

Struggle for single-payer steps up direct action

Over the past month, there have been 132 people arrested (and hundreds more in supporting protests) in 20 cities around the country, all demanding a single-payer healthcare system, or Medicare for All.

I was in the first protest of this campaign in New York, on Sept. 29th, which was organized by the Private Health Insurance Must Go! (PHIMG) coalition, a NYC-based single-payer direct action group. 17 of us were arrested, and spent about 27 hours locked up. We got some national coverage, but it was clear that for this to be effective, it needed to grow.

Since at least the fall of 2007, PHIMG has been organizing protests all around New York, targeting politicians and insurance companies, demanding single payer. Many of the members of PHIMG had gained political and organizing experience during the 1980s as members of ACT UP, and understood the importance of strategic civil disobedience tactics. With these veteran activists in the lead and momentum building for Sept. 29th, single-payer activists across the country began organizing a national campaign, coordinated by Mobilization for Health Care for All, and it’s main national member organization, Healthcare-Now!.

The next action was in Chicago on Oct. 8th and continued with nationally coordinated protests on Oct. 15th in 9 cities (New York, Washington, D.C.; Cleveland; Phoenix; Palm Beach, Fla.; Boston; Reno, Nev.; Portland, Ore.; and Los Angeles), with 14 arrested in New York, 12 in LA and 11 in Boston. The latest wave of coordinated actions was last week, on Oct. 28th, with protests in 11 cities, including 37 arrested in Glendale, CA and 9 more in New York.

The politics of this campaign are focused solely on single-payer. Among the main New York activists, the significance of this campaign is understood as at least 2-fold:

  1. Building pressure on congress through the media will help push the current proposals further left.
  2. Perhaps more importantly, however, these actions, specifically during this national debate, are important for solidifying the foundation for a stronger long-term movement for single-payer.

So, while of course it’s exciting to be a part of a flashy, dramatic nationally coordinated campaign, we have to keep in mind the significance of these actions for the long-haul fight for single-payer. For those of us who are able to risk arrest, these activists are likely to be key folks for us to know going forward –- and there’s nothing like getting locked up together to jump-start a friendship!

Check here for new upcoming actions. Actions are planned for Nov. 2nd, 4th, and 5th in 8 cities: St. Louis, San Diego, Albuquerque, Houston, Atlanta, Detroit, Syracuse, and Denver!

A call to organize: social work as social movement

I am finishing a Masters in Social Work in New York, and have been very involved in student organizing at my school. After two years, we’ve developed a great network of a few dozen student and community activists. I hope to continue to organize with these folks throughout my career as a social worker. I wrote the following for our social work student journal in an effort to provide a basis for continuing our organizing after graduation. [Note: the school is divided into three main majors: clinical casework (what social work is traditionally thought of), clinical group work (i.e. running support groups), and community organizing (i.e. grass-roots organizing, mostly in non-profits)]

A CALL TO ORGANIZE: SOCIAL WORK AS SOCIAL MOVEMENT

“Ethical Principle: Social workers challenge social injustice. Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people” (National Association of Social Workers, Code of Ethics)[1].

The history and literature of community organizers is perhaps the most focused on applying this principle to societal-level change, but what are the implications for the 81% of us here are majoring in casework and groupwork? I have come to see the social justice principle as giving caseworkers and groupworkers two specific mandates: implementing anti-oppressive practice and organizing within our agencies. There are many ways to pursue social change as social workers, but integrating these two specific areas of work into our daily practice will help us provide the best services possible in our imperfect agencies and also utilize our unique positions as service providers to improve and expand the ability of our agencies to meet the needs of our clients.

Before going into these two mandates, I want to briefly reflect on why in social work the principle of social justice is so central to our practice. As a field, we pride ourselves on a “bio-psycho-social” assessment of clients, one that sees each person as part of multiple levels of systems ranging from micro to macro, from nutrition and disease to poverty and oppression.

Not only do we attempt to understand the “problems” in one system or another (such as depression at the psychological level or poverty at a societal level) and the strengths and opportunities that our clients have for achieving their goals, our training helps us assess the interactions between these levels of systems. For example, Boyd-Franklin has described how racism is a cause underlying many of the “clinical” psychological problems that social workers’ clients of color present with [2]. Such perspectives on assessment are already in our curriculum and we know that without social change, we will continue to see disproportionate medical and mental health suffering among the victims of social injustice.

Implementing anti-oppressive practice

In my experience studying clinical casework, I have struggled to find a framework for bio-psycho-social interventions that addresses the complexity of our bio-psycho-social assessments.

For example, when helping a client develop anger management strategies, how might we also intervene in the social structures of oppression that have contributed to his anger in the first place? A community organizer might pursue policy change through direct action strategies, but many caseworkers are in agencies that effectively limit our work to individual and group sessions within the walls of the clinic. Though there has been relatively little written about this until recently, important progress has been made in the past several years, including two excellent books [3, 4].

In addition to emphasizing social workers’ own self-awareness and knowledge, a theme in much of this work is helping clients develop healthy and affirming responses to and rejections of oppression. The relationship of this process to larger social change is profound; as Freire [5] noted with his term conscientization, rejecting the psychological submission that oppression requires of its victims is essential to the project of achieving societal-level social change.

Thus, continuing to develop and implement anti-oppressive practice is both feasible in our current roles as caseworkers and groupworkers and effective in countering social injustice.

Organizing within our agencies

While much can be accomplished through anti-oppressive practice with individuals and groups in these settings, the nature and scope of the services and resources available to our clients must also be greatly expanded. To be effective allies for our clients and for social justice, we also have to be organized in the face of continuing attacks on social services in general and our ability to provide quality services specifically.

While the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) does advocate around these issues, those of us actually providing the services are in a key position to become a powerful force for social change if we organize with our colleagues in our agencies and across the city. While this may seem like an order too tall to fill, there is a remarkable precedent for just this less than 50 years ago right here in New York. When Piven and Cloward [6] described the welfare rights movement of the 1960s (a sort of continuation of the civil rights movement, made up mostly of African-American women receiving welfare), they note that the struggles of these welfare recipients was significantly aided by the Social Service Employees Union (SSEU)[7], an organization of only 5,000 employees of what is now HRA who had taken a principled stance in alliance with the welfare recipients.

These social workers and their colleagues refused to cooperate with the City’s severe limitations on relief, and in January, 1965 — after planning with the New York chapter of the National Welfare Rights Organization and other civil rights organizations — they walked off the job, shutting down the City’s welfare system for a month. In an excellent chapter devoted to this strike, Maier [8] notes that largely due to their strategy of effective organizing with colleagues and allying with service recipients, “even critics of the union admit that SSEU’s influence in New York was far out of proportion to its size”. In the end, they won increases in relief for welfare recipients, smaller caseloads, greater control over their work and pay increases.

While this work will not be easy and like all of our efforts, there are no guarantees, caseworkers and groupworkers can make major contributions to the struggles for social justice by organizing ourselves in our agencies and allying with our clients. Reach out and say hi – let’s get organized!

Social work as social movement

Front-line caseworkers and groupworkers make up the vast majority of social workers in the US, and we risk not only abandoning our ethical mandates if we leave social change to the community organizers or NASW staff, but social workers as a group will also have failed to contribute all that we can to the social movement that social justice requires.

The question is not whether social justice is some special interest of community organizers – social justice is at the heart of competent social work practice in all settings, whether we like it or not. The question is whether we will become part of the powerful social movement necessary to achieve it.

Notes

  1. NASW, Code of Ethics, as revised by the Delegate Assembly. 1999, National Association of Social Workers.
  2. Franklin, A.J., N. Boyd-Franklin, and S. Kelly, Racism and Invisibility: Race-Related Stress, Emotional Abuse and Psychological Trauma for People of Color, in Racism and racial identity: reflections on urban practice in mental health and social services, L.V. Blitz and M.P. Greene, Editors. 2006, Haworth Maltreatment & Trauma Press: New York. p. xxxi, 279 p.
  3. Aldarondo, E., Advancing social justice through clinical practice. 2007, Mahwah, New Jersey; London: Lawrence Erlbaum. xxiv, 496 p.
  4. Blitz, L.V. and M.P. Greene, Racism and racial identity: reflections on urban practice in mental health and social services. 2006, New York: Haworth Maltreatment & Trauma Press. xxxi, 279 p.
  5. Freire, P., Pedagogy of the oppressed. New rev. 20th-Anniversary ed. 1993, New York: Continuum. 164 p.
  6. Piven, F.F. and R.A. Cloward, Poor people’s movements: why they succeed, how they fail. 1979, New York: Vintage books. xxiv, 381 p.
  7. SSEU: Though it has gone through many changes since the 1960s, SSEU is still around (www.sseu371.org) and represents approximately 18,000 public sector workers who provide social services in New York City, including over 2,000 who are social workers with MSWs.
  8. Maier, M., City unions: managing discontent in New York City. 1987, New Brunswick [N.J.]: Rutgers University Press. xii, 221 p.

New York 'Fed' bails out business while Mayor announces budget cuts

Friday it was announced that New York State government’s bank, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, will bail out Wall Street big-shot bankers at Bear Stearns. Perhaps fittingly, Lee Bollinger, the Columbia University President who’s behind one of the biggest land-grabs in the city, is on the Board of Directors of this bank.

Meanwhile, foreclosures on small homeowners continue to rise. City Councilmember from Queens, James Sanders, noted the inaction of government on every level, saying that the federal, state and city legislatures stood by as families were victimized. “The basic problem,” he said, “is that people have mortgages that (were) predatory, so even if you gave them a month to work it out with the bank, studies have shown that banks are not renegotiating with people.”

Last week, Mayor Bloomberg announced that working New Yorkers will have to swallow another round of tax cuts. This $500 million in cuts is on top of the $800 million in cuts already proposed for next year. The cuts will reduce services for every city agency!

“The cuts he proposed in the preliminary budget would already reduce summer jobs for youth, it would cut back on libraries and library hours,” said Doug Turetsky of NYC’s Independent Budget Office. “You’re seeing principals talking about cutting back on after school programs, on being able to buy supplies for classrooms and training for teachers and various other things.”

Unlike Bear Stearns’ bankers, the rest of us depend on these services. Wealthy neighborhoods have resident or business associations that pay for private security and sanitation services (or welfare recipients are forced to do the work there for free). Its a win-win situation for them, reducing the effects of budget cuts on them and also undermining the City’s unions (whose members live in neighborhoods that don’t get the services).

Keep in mind, however, that in fiscal year 2007, the City gave $2.5 billion in tax breaks to landlords and corporations! This can be compared to the $700 million in breaks to individuals, but even this primarily went to wealthy condo and co-op owners downtown with tax lawyers, rather than the small homeowners in the outer boroughs that now face foreclosures.

Its nothing new, and certainly not surprising in the present situation, but of course that doesn’t keep it from hurting.

“On being white…and other lies”

*Title taken from James Baldwin essay by that title (1984)

By the time I graduated high school, I saw that the rural area of Pennsylvania I grew up as the epitome of racism…and homophobia. Not much room for liberal “we-love-diversity”. I left there hating the whole area: it was dead, backward, close-minded, bigoted and all that. Arriving in New York for college, I thought I was in heaven, a far as “lets-all-get-along” diversity goes. That lasted about one subway ride, and I soon realized that New York is at least as harsh on people of color as my high school was, but in different ways and with lot more power to beat people down. By the end of college I was thoroughly disgusted with the white people of gentrified New York that didn’t have much in common with the working-class and poor rural white folks I grew up around. I moved to Harlem and, like my parents did back home, started getting involved in some of the community groups.

The more I get involved in the fight against racism here as an ally, the more I have to re-evaluate why I’m doing it. I don’t mean ‘Why am I trying to fight racism,’ but why am I trying to do it here, in Harlem with no solidly working-class white neighborhoods in sight. Is it a strategic decision about revolutionary organizing? Is it that these folks here in Harlem need a hand—and my hand in particular? To what extent is it also about me continuing to distance myself—my identity, my social life, my culture—from the out-and-out bigotry that I saw growing up? Moving away after high school was very much about that distancing, as if by leaving I was absolving myself of being “that kind of white person.” But after getting to know the punishing oppression that New York is for so many of its residents, my flight from rural PA is hardly justified on those terms. Now I’m just part of gentrification, like it or not.

As for strategy, one white SNCC veteran said to me recently that when they were excluded from the organization, it was less of a “you aren’t needed here” as “you are needed somewhere else—your own community”; it was articulating the need for white activists to turn to their own communities and organize around racism there. As Chip Smith notes in his recent book, The Cost of Privilege. “where the system of racial privilege divides workers the most, the average wage level for both white workers and workers of color tends to be lowest”. The historical creation of whiteness in America, the subject of James Baldwin’s essay noted above, serves a purpose and serves it well—the privilege of white workers gives them something to hold on to in their competition with other workers, especially as all wages are falling so quickly (note the partial repeal of affirmative action in Michigan). As for my area of PA, it is a major transportation hub and home to many over the road truckers. What might organizing there lead to? What is the potential for it to be directed against the racism oppression in that context?

Now, there’re all kinds of reasons why urban areas could be prioritized for revolutionary social movement organizing over rural areas (where some communities are literally dying off and young folks move out as fast as they can), but that’s not really the point of this little piece. The point is, what are the relationships between our political logic and our personal choices? If we say what we’re doing politically is based on some serious analysis, its got to be a critical analysis of ourselves and our personal decisions as well as the political situation. Why is it better for me—not just any activist, but me personally—to be here, working and organizing here in New York, and in Harlem in particular? What opportunities for building struggle am I missing at home? If I don’t have good answers, should I be packing my bags and heading on home? I don’t have the answers, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever find my way back to PA (though I think about it a lot more lately). In any case, I can’t pretend that I’m following a handbook for revolution, and got to be honest with myself if I’m every to be useful in our struggles.

Fighting Against the Storm

On Nov. 10th several hundred community members met at historic St. Mary’s Church in Harlem and marched through the public housing complex chanting “Harlem: Not For Sale!” and “Public Housing: Not For Sale!” to Columbia University’s main campus.  There, students joined them to protest what some are calling “Hurricane Columbia”, a reference to the struggles against gentrification and population removal in New Orleans. For over four and a half years, a grassroots Coalition to Preserve Community has been leading the charge against the university’s proposed bulldozing and development of 18 acres in Harlem for a new bio-technology / bio-medical research campus. This is a fight about profit, racism, local politicians and community power!

University, Inc.
Why would Columbia, with an endowment of nearly $6 billion, need to use eminent domain to evict thousands of low-income, Black and Latino residents when it can afford any property they don’t already own? Like other businesses, it wants to expand and bring in more money. In 2005, Columbia received over $718 million in grants, 74% of which was for bio-medical research. Where does this money come from?  Well, we’re paying for it: 82% of it is from our taxes.  But we aren’t even getting what we pay for: in 2005 about $40 million of the amount granted was never spent. If that’s not enough to make you boil, Columbia also makes huge profits from selling the results of the research we fund. In all, 70 “spin-off” companies have turned a nice profit of over $1.75 billion. In the last year alone, the university earned over $26 million just from these patents (on what should be public), more than all the tuition from all its students!  So, research is where the money is—not the students—and like any big business, that’s what counts.  Oh, and because it is officially “not-for-profit” (yeah, right!), all this money is tax exempt!  That’s right, communities are paying to be evicted, all for the university’s bottom line.

Gentrification and Racism
Developers try to get what they want the easiest way they can. Gentrification in Harlem, like elsewhere, has always been a racist process of sacrificing communities of color because it’s usually easier than sacrificing rich white peoples’ neighborhoods. Columbia’s attempts to take over the surrounding areas of Harlem go back at least 50 years, and include its infamous 1968 plan to build a private gym in Morningside Park, a public park.  The fancy main entrance would have been for students, with a back-door entrance for Harlem residents at the bottom of the hill. These plans were widely viewed as racist, and even (then future) Mayor Dinkins was calling it out.

The current round with Columbia is no different: the university counts on the mostly Black and Latino working class communities around it being powerless against it; that politicians are easily bought; that the community doesn’t have money for fancy lobbyists or friends in high places. Columbia is afraid of being labeled as racist, however, so they are trying to hide it with a special “WE’RE NOT RACIST” campaign. Dinkins himself has now come out in favor of the gentrification plan, writing last May in the New York Times that all the jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities will be great for the community.  Even NAACP has come out supporting the university, talking about the “many benefits that the local community will gain from the proposed expansion,” but basically says it will create jobs.  The university has created a fake pro-Columbia community group called “Coalition for the Future of Manhattanville” with the help of Bill Lynch, a prominent Democratic Party lobbyist and former deputy mayor under Dinkins. They pulled all the stops in this show at a Community Board 9 meeting in mid-August, making sure that these people were there, and, responding to the crowd’s chants about the racist plans, the NAACP even explicitly said that Columbia is officially NOT RACIST.


The area of Harlem affected by Columbia’s expansion.

Sell-Out Politicians
This struggle has demonstrated that the Democratic Party politicians of the area are racing to sell out their constituents!  City Council member Robert Jackson (District 7) comes around with the standard “I support the community” talk, but in September Jackson’s chief of staff took up the fight on behalf of the university and its fake community group, trying to undermine any opposition to the university’s illegal land-grab.  At public hearings, he’s always the first to tell the community, “sit down, and stop bothering these fancy people in the suits.”  But does he ever take a stand with the residents?  No.  Does he march with them in the streets? No.

Manhattan’s Borough President Scott Stringer is another one trying to play residents for fools.  He’s spent the last few years running around talking like Robin Hood—calling himself an advocate for “development that reflects neighborhood values”—but all he’s doing in robbing the neighborhood!  Over the summer, his “West Harlem Special District” tried to make Columbia’s takeover easier to swallow, but it doesn’t deal with the main issue: Columbia wants the neighborhood for itself!  Sure enough, by the end of September, Stringer announces that he has come to an agreement with the university.  Where are the residents in this process?  He reluctantly put up with the public review process, only conclude that despite all the community’s opposition, his job was to start making deals.  And is he in the streets? No.

Students Support the Community
There have always been students involved in this fight against population removal—as in 1968, they’ve been in the streets with the community!  Students are also organizing against racism in the classroom, demanding an end to the Eurocentric old-white-men curriculum and strong ethnic studies department.  They also want their university to stop bullying and trying to remove a whole community. Frustrated with the channels recommended by the fancy people in suits, these students were on a hunger strike for these demands for 10 days, but the university is holding onto its gentrification plans with all it has.  Nonetheless, the students did get many of their curriculum demands through their struggle.

A Right to the City!

In 1968 the community rallied against a powerful developer and won!  Community members laid down in front of bulldozers, the students took over the campus and the big money guys in the fancy suits were beaten back!  1968 was about a public park.  Now they want a whole neighborhood.  Columbia is far from the only one gentrifying these neighborhoods out of existence (i.e. Pinnacle Group or HPD), but it is one of the biggest right now. No one knows exactly how far its effects will reach, but it’s a storm looming over all of us. Residents have a right to their city, and they are fighting for it!