Many remember the 1979 Martin Ritt film, Norma Rae. It tells the story of Crystal Lee Sutton, the millhand turned union organizer during the efforts to organize J.P Stevens. Writing these words now, makes me feel as though some of these words…organizer, J.P. Stevens, even the film with the images of a very youthful Sally Field in the starring role, occurred in another America…far from the America of today.
1979 after all is closer to the end of World War II than it is to today!
In the present moment….we just experienced the defeat in a unionization effort at Boeing in South Carolina. A couple of years ago, we witnessed defeat in a unionization effort at Volkswagen in Tennessee. Organizing in the South has been difficult to say the least. Experienced organizers remind us that anti-union campaigns were invented in the South…where the legacy of Jim Crow and legal segregation provided the landscape for the essence of the divide and conquer platform inherent in anti-union organizing strategy. By the 1980’s the anti-union industry became a billion dollar industry and it has never looked back.
Efforts to reform labor law in favor of unionization have failed all through Democratic Presidencies and majority Democratic Congresses since 1977. At the heart of these reforms has been a consistent theme to eliminate employer opposition to the right to organize, as is the case is most of the rest of the industrialized world.
Back to Norma Rae…when I watched it last week, it was at least my tenth viewing of the film. I was struck at its powerful appeal even after all those viewings, none more powerful than the scene which depicts the union vote and the union victory. Martin Ritt, the film’s director pulled his actors into an authentic re-creation of such moments. I’ve had the experience of being at more than 100 such victorious events. When workers win highly contested union elections like the one depicted in the film, there is an unmistakable sense of nothing short of liberation. Liberation that is deep in the soul, the liberation which unlocks a lifetime of not feeling valued as a human being. The physical and emotional stress that builds up over a lifetime is a universally held experience among workers, whether they are bank tellers, cooks, truckers, physicians and nurses, salespersons, or nurses aides.
Walk into any lunchroom anywhere…and the conversations have a universal set of themes, I believe reflected in the missing sense of value that workers experience at work, and more broadly.
That stress seeks resolution. Where will it be found? What should it mean? How can that resolution be sustained, shared, and embraced by all of the sectors of our Constitutional system and civil society?
And, we are living through a period of so-called populism fueled in large part by workers from all sectors wondering if it will ever be possible for there to be any sense of security in America…security from physical harm to be sure, but that deeper sense of security that keeps over a hundred million families up at night: can I afford comfortable housing, high quality comprehensive health care and enjoy good health, high quality child care and education, a comfortable retirement, a place to work where my labor is valued, economically, emotionally, with a sense of contribution?
Will I have time for rest and for meaningful leisure?.
In 1979, the experience of the industrial labor movement’s organizing meant a great deal to all sectors of American society…those who benefited in job security, wages and beenfits; those in industry and in public policy who saw that the basic definitions and premises of the National Labor Relations Act were good for commerce and economic development, and for those who opposed unionization…organizing big companies like J.P. Stevens was a continuation of the industrial labor movement. Even though manufacturing was beginning its decline, and “off-shoring”, especially in clothing and textiles was well underway, campaigns like at J.P . Stevens undertaken by the Textile and Clothing Workers Union were tremendously important events. J.P. Stevens became synonymous with revitalization of union organizing everywhere, especially in the South. The Union succeeded in a multi-year struggle to win a union contract at J.P. Stevens, only to ultimately see the company sold and abandon its operations.
People who know their labor history are deeply aware that organizing in the South fueled great movements from the early 20th century, including the largest strike in U.S. history up to that time. In 1934, 300-500 thousand textile workers were on strike from New England to the Carolinas.
Norma Rae was also a major cultural event in 1979. Sally Field won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Crystal Lee Sutton (pictured above is a real life embrace of the actress with Crystal Lee Sutton). I’d suggest that the millions who saw the film then and since were moved to tears all through that great film, including during the union victory scene held in the warehouse of the giant mill.
The Ambition of Organizing…what can, what must be done to create linkage between the increasingly all-to-infrequent moments of liberation, to a new and sustained pathway to a just economic and social order?
“We cannot achieve what we cannot imagine”…(Myles Horton)
For the past 12 years, I have seen what that imagination can be: the full engagement of workers in the strategy of the enterprise in which they work. Today, there are 3,500 unit based teams (UBTs) at Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest not-for-profit health plan, and among the very largest health systems in the nation. It is also among the largest employers in the nation with over 200,000 employees. This year the Labor-Management Partnership (LMP) at Kaiser Permanente will celebrate its 20th anniversary. There has never been a larger, more complex or more successful such partnership in American history.
Having been a co-leader of the LMP for nearly 8 years, I can tell you without doubt that the sense of liberation depicted in Norma Rae occurs every day in the unit based teams at Kaiser Permanente where nearly the entire workforce is unionized. It is a liberation from only working at a job to participating in a career…a career that is understood to be co-dependent with the enterprise. But most important, an enterprise defined as a “social asset”.
Americans mostly don’t recognize that the nature of healthcare is social…all the financing of health care is either directly from our taxes, our paychecks, or our payrolls. There is nothing private about health care except the way it is organized.
Though a private, not-for-profit enterprise, Kaiser Permanente has been organized around what its founder, Dr. Sidney Garfield called the “new economics of healthcare”…the design of a finance and delivery system to keep people healthy, keep people out of the hospital and to live by the desire that all people have: “no one wants to get sick”.
The LMP is organized around these founding principles and all of its UBTs are organized around the Value Compass: an operational strategy for all to contribute to every day. The Value Compass depicts “true north” in every unit of the enterprise that asks all to contribute to balanced and ever increasing improvement in clinical quality and patient safety, customer service, affordability, and being the best place to work.
The organizational design of the Kaiser Permanente Labor Management Partnership can serve as the driver of what I am calling a renewed Ambition of Organizing…to take up the challenge of the deep desire for liberation from the stress of insecurity to a new partnership that can evolve among all stakeholders if we are to create the value in our economy for sustainable success. Kaiser Permanente has achieved sustainable success over more than 75 years to emerge as the nation’s most successful health system at a time when so many are struggling.
This partnership is not based on labor and management “getting along” as some suggest. Rather, the partnership is a deeply organic, evolving set of joint responsibilities that the unions and leadership of Kaiser Permanente began to experiment with 20 years ago. Through the development of a shared understanding of the challenges to American families’ health and the ability to access the kind of healthcare that would be affordable and keep them healthy, they have worked tirelessly to jointly improve its model of care.
It is also the case that as Kaiser Permanente has grown and stands as a world leader, the workers and the unions, over 105,000 of them enjoy the best wages and benefits in the industry, the right to organize without opposition, and to have a seat at the table of responsibility for success. It is not a system of co-management; rather, it is a system of joint decision-making, something far more complex, especially in the framework of collective bargaining.
Joint decision-making relies on an agreed upon framework to continuously improve and create more value. This is far more challenging than co-management or simply sitting on boards or other oversight bodies of the enterprise. The commitments are made to a social outcome: true partnership with the communities the enterprise serves.
The spark of liberation exists in the hearts of the frontline staff who are engaged in continuous problem-solving, who recognize that they have at least two jobs: their job function and the job of continuous improvement. The spark of liberation plays out among young and not-so-young workers…those who as one told me works hard to continuously improve his skills so as to treat the customer on the other end of the telephone the way he wants to be treated by a large organization; to the cardiology tech who took on new responsibilities to screen patients for their key biometrics and cancer screenings, tasks that were seen initially as beyond the scope of her job. After learning the impact of early detection in a cancer patient who was in her clinic for an exam, and experiencing how that early detection saved the patients’ life, she said that after more than 25 years on the job she never expected to learn anything new, but now she felt renewed and VALUED.
Recently, a woman who worked as a nurse aide in a nursing home told me: “our new efforts to engage our employers in strategy is the best thing we can possibly do. We have spent the past 30 years making incremental progress for the workers in our nursing homes. This has been great and beneficial. But in truth , the residents of our homes have not benefitted at all. The billions spent on resident care has been wasted, the suffering is profound.”
She is part of a movement in her union to fundamentally redesign labor-management dialogue whereby the focus will be on the patient: improve their human condition through joint improvement processes in a labor-management partnership. She sees that continued improvement for the workforce is inextricably linked to the improvement of resident experience.
My friend the nurses aide feels that spark of liberation…as she challenges her co-workers every day when they complain about their job or something bad that happended at work: she challenges them to come up with a solution, in her own way suggesting that you cannot attain what you cannot imagine.
Organizing can be an engine of new organizational design…building thousands and thousands of liberation moments…with a language and culture that all stakeholders can embody and act upon.
That language and culture should include joint understanding of and dialogue about the continuous improvement and value creation for the community served by all of our enterprises.
We must stop employer opposition to unionization. As we do, we have an opportunity to truly capture the national imagination: the spark in people is alive, perhaps dormant or misplaced, but it is there. And for too long, we have not been able to kindle it, reeling from the deep anxiety that the last 40 years of lost or yet-to-be experienced security in life. Indeed many millions lost a secure way of life, many millions of others never even experienced one. The time is long overdo for us to build social pathways in all sectors of the economy that create value in the products and services from their human and capital investments. In so doing, high value, like at Kaiser Permanente can be built in all sectors.
The Ambition of Organizing is central to the human experience. Labor law reform should be part of a new national dialogue to be sure. The discussion of reform should push all the old boundaries of the definitions of commerce and the role of workers in it.
The spark is there…it always has been, and it always will be.