The issue became personal for me recently when I heard that a health clinic I used to work at in New York had apologized to its staff. It’s a “progressive” workplace. You know the type: it has Black Lives Matter plastered all over its walls, claims to stand for justice, and boasts about its nonprofit status. Yet it functions just like a for-profit institution, funneling patients in and out of its doors like a factory. The clinic’s CEO recently issued a statement of apology to all staff regarding actions it took during the pandemic. He made sure to “acknowledge mistakes” and pledged “to do things differently going forward,” concluding that “we can and will do better as a leadership team.”
So, what mistakes was the CEO referencing, might you ask? He mentioned them in the email, such as furloughs; a lack of wage increases to keep up with the cost of living; the uneven distribution of remote work opportunities, which some staff argue appeared to be along lines of race and class; and the implementation of a “point system” for healthcare workers’ compensation — turning patient care into points, as in a video game, in which workers got more “points” based on how many patients were seen. The CEO also noted that, possibly as a result of some of these decisions, he has noticed an “increase in distrust between folks in leadership and front-line staff.” But what he didn’t mention is the large number of resignations, which he is undoubtedly trying to stop.
But not to worry, like all CEOs, this CEO tried to smooth things over and present the institution in a good light, reinforcing how the institution “organizationally has begun to make amends” by convening more labor management meetings and opening “a process to involve voices from across the organization.” He is, in other words, posturing as if he would like to democratize the institution’s decision-making.
But there is no such thing as democracy in a system of private, largely for-profit healthcare. There is no such thing as democracy even in nonprofits run by CEOs like any other corporation.
Predictably, the CEO forgot to include some important context in his email. At the height of the pandemic’s first wave, workers (myself included) at the institution organized ourselves and fought back — refusing point systems that dehumanized healthcare further, demanding safety, demanding more financial transparency at the institution, and demanding that frontline healthcare workers have control in managing how the institution was run, since we know best how to do things on the front lines, as opposed to those who sit in an office collecting a check. As we undertook this struggle, the exact same CEO, along with those highest in management, worked to gaslight, undermine, divide, and destroy our movement. Yet now, emails are being sent out about how the institution needs to grow together and how leadership cannot do it without the staff’s trust in leadership. But have there been any fundamental changes to the institutional structure? Are there material improvements in staffing? Do frontline workers have actual control of how the organization is run? Did many workers ever even receive the hazard pay they have demanded? The simple answer to all these questions is no.
Instead, what do workers actually get? They get nice, flowery emails. They are told that if they want to improve the institution, it won’t come through a clash with the bosses, but by working with the bosses. It will come through participating in various committees made up of the CEO and organizational leadership. Opening more committees and spaces for staff to “voice their concerns” to management is a well-known form of corporate control. It gives the perception that management wants to change but allows it to control, monitor and neuter any workplace activism. It really comes down to what one high-ranking staff member of this same institution allegedly told a colleague of mine: “My role here is to make people feel heard and then make sure nothing actually changes.”
That quote, that ideology, is the ideology of corporate managers in the age of Covid: they make you feel heard but do nothing to improve your material conditions. Emails coming from the likes of the CEO of my former workplace come at a time when more and more healthcare workers are quitting, fed up with worsening conditions. As Ed Young highlights in his piece in The Atlantic, “about one in five healthcare workers have left their job since the pandemic started.” These workers are quitting because they are tired of nothing changing. And it is not just healthcare workers; more and more teachers are leaving the profession as they refuse to work in an environment that focuses more on warehousing children so parents can go to work than safe learning conditions.
This is occurring as states throughout the U.S. are dropping public health measures to control the spread of Covid. At this stage in the pandemic, the ruling class has resolved to allow Covid to spread unabated. “We just all have to live with it,” goes the new mantra. At the same time, the ruling class is making an effort at damage control to rehabilitate its image. CEOs are issuing public statements, sending staffwide emails. They’re admitting that some mistakes have been made, but they assure us that they are working to be better. They’re doing whatever they can to improve their image to both the public and their employees.
Is it the case that corporate leaders around the country are scared because staff does not trust them or because staff are tired of being exploited and are quitting? Well, they should be. Healthcare workers, teachers, workers all around the country have realized that the bosses are not on their side and they never will be, no matter how many nice apology emails or Employee of the Month awards they send out. Really, until workers come together, organizing themselves to push back against their bosses, establishing not just safety in the immediate term, but seizing control of their institutions for the long term, nothing will change besides the subject line of the boss’s next flowery email.