by Alvin Blanco, NYC Workers’ Voice, 9-2-13
In the last few months, health workers and community members have been fighting against the closure of hospitals in Brooklyn, NY. Last August 16th, local activists, staff and patients of the Long Island College Hospital (LICH), a 155-year-old hospital in Cobble Hill, won a small battle against SUNY Downstate and the state Department of Health (DOH) who moved to shut it down. A court order stated that SUNY and the DOH must restore LICH’s medical services, including the active Emergency Department, the Intensive Care Unit, inpatient medical beds, as well as the laboratories, the radiology, & the social assistance and pharmacy services. This order assures these services until the final results of the legal litigation concerning the Hospital, but LICH is still under a guillotine.
Another battle is being fought, now against the Interfaith Medical Center’s closure. This hospital is located in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood mostly composed by Afro-American and Caribbean workers. Interfaith, formed by a merger of Brooklyn Jewish Medical Center and St. John’s Episcopal Hospital, operates in this neighborhood for more than a century. This hospital has 120 inpatient psychiatric beds and is one of New York’s largest providers of acute mental health care.
Other hospitals in the area are also in bad shape. Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Bushwick is functioning in a precarious condition and can be the next in line. This hospital has a very difficult financial situation and it has been resisting the deficits for years. For September, Wyckoff announced the end of the family residency program, in spite of the fact this is a teaching hospital, and will give the family chirurgic clinics to private doctors’ groups. The situation in Wyckoff could become worse if Interfaith is closed. Interfaith is the only provider of inpatient behavioral health that accepted Wyckoff’s patients.
Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) announced a plan to downsize the roster of mental hospitals to 15 from 24. The main reason are the cuts made in the Medicaid budget by the Obama administration. According to the Governor’s office, more outpatient services and supportive housing to prevent mental health crises are less expensive than hospitalization. But, the fact is that the hospitals have been closed without providing even these kind of precarious services. Brooklyn is experiencing a deep health emergency.
How to fight back?
Every Tuesday, hundreds of health workers and community members have been marching on Brooklyn’s streets demanding to keep Interfaith open. On August 27th, more than one hundred hands were tied symbolically around its main building. After that, nearly half-a- hundred workers marched to the hospital’s emergency door. While near the entrance, a community activist spoke and announced that she will picket the door alone. Candidly, the cops moved and arrested her without any resistance. The people were astonished, and spontaneously dispersed. The scene repeated what happened some months before when public advocate Bill de Blasio, Democratic Party candidate in mayor elections supported by 1199 SEIU, was arrested at the door of LICH and gained the news.
New hands around the hospitals and marches on Brooklyn are planned for next weeks. But for how long are the workers going to be able to resist without a visible effect on public opinion and a real impact on governments? Keeping the Brooklyn health structure is a very hard struggle. It is a fight against the austerity promoted by Barack Obama and Andrew Cuomo. It’s a fight against real estate speculation supported by Michael Bloomberg, who wants to transform hospitals into condos. It is a fight against financial markets and private speculators who transformed people’s health in a lucrative business. To win this war it is necessary to unite the health workers and the community members that depend on them.
At the rallies people chant “people united never be defeated” but unfortunately the hospital fight back is not united in the present moment. There are not workers of LINCH involved with the struggles of Interfaith’s and vice versa. There is not a united movement of all health workers against hospitals closures. On contrary, until now the leadership of United Healthcare Workers East (1199 SEIU) managed to separate and dived one struggle from the other. The first step in order to advance would be promoting unified spaces among these workers and communities on a battle in defense of the health structure of Brooklyn and that could demand a good, public an popular health system in general. This would signify criticizing, not only the local Democrats and Republicans representatives, but also the Obama’s unpopular health policy.
The second step would be to adopt more effective ways of struggle, like true pickets, common hospital workers’ demonstrations, stoppages and even strikes. It is an imperative to broke the vicious circle of ineffective marches and alleged individual pickets. This could not produce even headlines in the New York newspapers. As an Interfaith worker said, “we need to be more aggressive and persistent”.
Build a new democratic leadership
After the marches in Brooklyn, Interfaith workers and community members went to a community hall in a nearby church. At first they patiently listened to union and community leaderships. Now, as the primaries for mayor in New York become closer, council members, candidates and even a congressman spoke in the pulpit. But common people, the union rank and file that marched every week, never spoke. The microphone was only open to officials and figures of authority.
Some people are not satisfied with this situation. As Interfaith workers said to Workers’ Voice, “when it’s time to run for office, the politicians come to us for support. We pay a political action fund and SEIU 1199 puts money in support of their choice of political organization. But after the election, they became blind to us; even the union”.
Health workers need to build a new democratic leadership, independent from capitalist parties and union bosses. Unfortunately, most New York leftist groups have renounced the struggle for this. In the same way as the union bosses and Democratic Party representatives, these groups have been also blind to the struggle around Brooklyn’s hospitals. No one but the few Workers’ Voice members crossed the bridge that separates Brooklyn from the rest of the city to reach this popular fight. It’s time to open their eyes and to start to support workers’ struggles, as well as to improve the rank and file’s autonomous organization against bosses and bureaucrats.