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Lessons in Solidarity

Lessons in Solidarity

Each day we washed, dried, folded, and carried thousands of pounds of hospital sheets, blankets, operating gowns, operating covers, wash rags, towels, and anything else the hospital used. Often we handled materials that were soiled, bloodied, and stained with urine and feces. From time to time, human flesh — even recognizable body parts — showed up wrapped in cloth.

Each side of the hospital had large chutes for loading soiled cloths. Once laundry was put into the chute, it would drop down to the basement. My job, along with one other worker, was to unpack the pile of cloths in each of the eight rooms, put the dirty laundry in carts, and roll the carts to a loading dock in one corner of the hospital.

From there we loaded the laundry onto the back of a large truck and drove the truck across the street to the laundry. Our final task was to place the laundry onto a sorting table where women began the sorting process. Carts of laundry were sent to the washers, dryers, and then to the folding tables. Once folded and sorted, workers placed the laundry in carts that were attached to each other and pulled back to the hospital by a small tractor and then delivered to the floors and departments of the hospitals.

It didn't take long to become aware of the many concerns of my co-workers. The hospital did not provide gloves, breathing protective wear, or even soap to protect workers from contact with all the soiled and bloodied materials we handled. If a department of the hospital had a diseased patient, they would wrap their sheets and gowns in a bundle and identify the package with the word "contaminated." We handled "contaminated" materials the same way we handled everything else, without any protection or special handling.

Getting Organized

The American Federation of State County Municipal Employees (AFS-CME) represented the workers at Grady. But Georgia is a "right-to-work" state. That doesn't mean everyone has a right to a job. It means employees are not required to join a union even if their employer recognizes union representation. In the rest of the hospital, fewer than half of the workers were union members. This, of course, made for a weak union. But all the laundry workers had joined the union. We knew we had to stick together.

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