An Organizer’s Legacy – Career Ladders

Hospital Accountability Organizing Wade's World

            Pearl River      Cape Cod in Massachusetts has a reputation as a tourist and second-home area.  “Going to the Cape” is what people talk about in the summer months in Massachusetts, so a lot of the economy is seasonal.  Seasonal for tourists means service work for the towns, even if the luster of the Kennedy compound is part of the Cape’s reputation.  When thinking about community or labor organizing on the Cape, you have to know about Bill Pastreich, and what he was able to accomplish in his time there.  I’ve known Bill forever it seems, but after visiting with him recently in the Bay Area, I wanted to talk to him about his work on the Cape on Wade’s World, because it’s central in the development of organizing.

                A lot of welfare rights veterans like Bill, Gerry Shea, Tom Glynn, and Bruce Thomas, all of whom I had worked with when I was in Massachusetts, were looking for a place to land as NWRO began its decline.  Paul Kirk, an ally who headed the state social workers union, introduced Bill to then SEIU President George Hardy and Organizing Director John Geagan.  They agreed to give the team a subsidy to organize hospitals in the Boston area.  Their first target was Beth Israel Hospital, but when they went to election, they were clobbered by almost four-to-one.  Lists are key in union organizing, and it was fun to hear Bill reminisce about the various means the team used to get lists, almost none of which you would learn in a labor studies class, I’ll guarantee you.

One thing leads to another, and Bill ends up going after a small unit at Cape Cod Hospital.  He wins one, and then another, and another, and over the years ends up representing virtually all the eligible bargaining units in the hospital wall-to-wall.  He makes the case that a lot of his success was his ability to marry community organizing there with the labor organizing.  He had great allies there in the community action agency and organized tenants in the Cape Cod and Islands around housing and other issues, blocked bridges, and did whatever it took in winning rights for the townies over the tourists.  Needless to say, some of these same members were also members of the union, so the synergy was solid, and Bill and his team organized hospitals in Falmouth, New Bedford along with nursing homes all over the Cape area.  Within the footprint of the Cape, this is one of the great success stories of community-labor partnerships.

A voting scandal in SEIU Local 285, which had merged with Local 880 (we later took that name for ULU 880, which is now the giant SEIU healthcare union in the Midwest), was too much for Bill, and when he couldn’t get that local’s leadership to do right, he filed for desertification petitions in the hospitals on the Cape to take them out of SEIU.  The International buckled and chartered the Cape healthcare union as Local 767 to resolve the crisis.

Bill was legendary for being in Cape Cod Hospital every day when he was around there.  Now he claims it was because the cafeteria had better food, but that’s only part of it.  Being there meant he was always up-to-date and could sweep up the grievances and issues easily.  The union took wages up from only pennies over two-bucks an hour in the late 1970s to starting salaries now at $35,000 for the lowest paid workers.

The capstone of their bargaining power was winning a joint union and hospital model career ladders program that allowed workers to advance from the lowest starting positions from one rung up to the next with better pay and higher skills.  A housekeeper could end up as a nurse’s aide or even a registered nurse or other job category, making the program life-changing for thousands of workers over the years.

Cape Cod Hospital is now Cape Cod Healthcare, having merged with several of the other area hospitals.  Now there are 5000 workers in the system.  The career ladders program is still in force, almost forty years since it was negotiated.  Believe me, the administrators of the system now tout the program as one of their bright, shining accomplishments, but that story begins with Bill Pastreich.  As an organizer, he won’t ever get any credit for any of this.    Nonetheless, that’s just a small part of his legacy, and a generation of workers have enjoyed its benefits and the fruits of his labor.   That’s just the way it is in this work, but the facts and history are important, and Bill has a lot to be proud of.