by Jim Smith

Dennis Rivera is the president of the independent New York hospital workers union, 1199.If his union was part of the AFL-CIO, he would likely be one of the top candidates for leadership of the federation. His militant actions on behalf of working people, regardless of union affiliation and his unassuming behavior have inspired admiration and respect throughout the labor movement.

Rivera was in Los Angeles last year to support county workers and SEIU Local 660 in their fight against massive layoffs and cuts in services. The following interview is abridged for space.


Q. While the labor movement continues to suffer declines in membership, your union, 1199 - the National Health & Human Services Union continues to be amazingly successful. Why?

Rivera: We've been lucky. We've been in an industry - health care - which up to this point has been expanding. And we have a union with a very proud tradition. It was called by Dr. Martin Luther King, "the conscious of the American labor movement." It's a union that strives to involve the members. We believe that's crucial. In order to win victories, we have to mobilize our members. For instances, we have a shop steward for every 25 members. The idea is to have as many members as possible involved and making decisions on managing the union. We have 117,000 members, but without having them mobilized we don't have any power.

Why should people be mobilized? What does the union represent in the lives of its members. More than 65,000 of our members have job guarantees. That is, for the life of the contract they can not be terminated for economic reasons. If those who have less than two years of employment lose their jobs, they get 80% of their salary for one year plus family health care benefits, training money and placement in the first job that is available.

All members get health care benefits completely paid for their families with no co-pays, no premiums, no deductibles on a comprehensive plan that covers dental, hospitalization, ambulatory care and life insurance. We have the only child care program in the country that's a Taft-Hartley fund where the employers contribute a half percent of gross payroll. This gives us youth mentor programs, day care, after school programs, summer camps.

We have aggressive training programs that are used every year by 5,000 members who go to universities. If they have more than nine units with a C grade or better they get completely reimbursed for tuition. Close to a 1,000 members go to study full time with 80 percent of their salary paid, plus tuition and books.

We have a very successful home owner program for members, 75 percent of whom are renters. A member can become a homeowner with only two percent down. If they don't have the money, they can borrow it from their pension. We have a well known cultural program, Bread and Roses and a very active political action program. What we're trying to do is that old axiom, "from cradle to grave."

In other words, there is nothing in the lives of our members that the union doesn't touch. So when the union calls for a demonstration, we use highly sophisticated targeting and telemarketing, publications, stewards, a very dedicated staff and a whole atmosphere and culture to mobilize our members. When someone is asked to participate, they say, "well, I have to protect any and all of these benefits." It's not one single thing, but a culmination of all the things that makes our union successful.


Q. Health care is under attack in Los Angeles County and around the country. What should unions be doing about it?

Rivera: I find it amazing how quickly life in America changes. It was little more than a year ago that we were talking about universal health care coverage, including for 40 million uninsured Americans. Now the debate in New York state is about ending home care for people with AIDs who are in the final stages of their life.

Here in Los Angeles, they're talking about closing hospitals and clinics and denying access to health care.

In Washington, they're talking about cutting Medicare to the tune of $280 billion in the next seven years and cutting $180 billion on Medicaid and ending it as an entitlement program.

It is incredible how quickly an issue can turn in our society. The insurance companies were on their deathbeds two years ago until 1500 of them spent $300 million on Harry and Louise ads on TV to scare the hell out of the American public about what the Clinton plan was going to do. Now the insurance companies are controlling the health care industry with their managed care, for profit corporations.

The health care industry is in incredible turmoil because the powers-that-be have fought back. My honest estimation is that peoples organizations and the democratic forces in our society have been slow to react. Once we lost the quest to gain universal coverage, many people thought everything was going to remain static. No, today we have more people without health care coverage than we did a year ago.

More people are paying out-of-pocket expenses and paying their own premiums. We lost. Now we have to lick our wounds and go back into the fight so we can keep what we have and win.


Q. What's your opinion on the leadership change in the AFL-CIO?


Rivera: It's a wonderful thing that for a change there is a challenge in the leadership of the AFL-CIO. I think there should be direct election of the president of the AFL-CIO. We did a poll about a year ago and found out that less than one percent of the American working people knew who Lane Kirkland was.

If there was a direct election for the leader of the working people of the United States, it would be incredible. At the end of the process, the whole country would be energized. The labor movement would come alive.

The second issue is that the political space of the labor movement is getting smaller and smaller every day. There has to be a direct link between politics and the legal right to organize. I claim that we do not have the legal right in our country to organize. Suppose we have 100 workers who want to join a union and we get 90 of them to sign a card. Then we go to the employer who says go to an election. It might take a year for an election and even if 100 percent vote for a union we could go two or three more years and not be certified to bargain on behalf of the workers. We must fight for labor law reform in our country and the right to organize.

Also, the labor movement must relate to people in all walks of life including workers at places like McDonalds and Starbucks. We have to talk differently, particularly to young people who do not relate to the labor movement. Lastly, we need to have militancy in this labor movement. Without a feeling of the power, energy and vibrancy of the labor movement, people will not have hope.


Q. People who know you well say you don't fit the stereotype of a major labor union leader. They say you work all the time. You're accessible to the membership. Your salary is closer to that of the average hospital worker than to that of leaders of large unions. You spend a lot of time and money supporting other unions' struggles. What is it that motivates you as a union leader?

Rivera: I think we have to answer this question in a very personal way. I get immense satisfaction with the work that I do. I get an incredible high out of putting together a program to provide child care to 50,000 kids or to provide free health care benefits or to correct an injustice by rallying thousands of people together. You have to like people. You have to be a "do-gooder."

A labor leader cannot just defend the rights of working people in the workplace, but must also build coalitions in the communities and be active in politics and social change.