On the evening of 19th November at Bethany Society, Shillong a momentous and unprecedented, if not historic event occurred. Those who congregated there witnessed the formation of the first ever organized union of workers in a private medical institution in Meghalaya: the Nazareth Hospital Workers Union (NHWU). The formal inauguration in the packed hall of the Society was attended by union members and well wishers including nurses from the hospital. Members from Thma U Rangli Juki (TUR), Khasi Students Union (KSU) and Synjuk Kynthei Katholik were also present. The Deputy Labor Commissioner Shri RW Wahlang graced the occasion and aptly delivered a speech highlighting the importance of unions in any establishment. Later the band TARIK belted out an inspiring song Power to the Union by the famous unionist Joe Hill much to the enthusiasm of the crowd. Interestingly, 19th November is Joe Hill Martyrdom Centenary Day and the song that TARIK performed was also meant as a tribute to Joe Hill who died a martyr for his union on 19th November 1915. TARIK rehashed the song imbuing it with bits of Khasi dialect.
Nazareth hospital is one of many hospitals, in and around Shillong. It is also one of the oldest privately-run hospitals currently managed by the Sisters of the Holy Cross. There are also other hospitals which were established in the days of the British, run by missionaries belonging to different churches and denominations. While there are government-run hospitals, the number of private hospitals outnumber the former. Nazareth Hospital is recognized as a charitable organization and has indeed rendered yeomen’s service to the people in the state.
Being a charitable institution it is also one of the most respected hospitals in the city. In addition to medical care it has also benefited the local population in terms of employment. The labor force for an institution with the size and scale of a hospital is enormous with opportunities for skilled and unskilled/semi-skilled laborers. The semi-skilled/unskilled workforce perform the most mundane of work. Scholarly works on a hospital’s working class are many and interesting. An article Hospital Workers: Class Conflict in the Making by B.Ehrenreich argued that there are two groups of work forces (skilled and unskilled) in a hospital. The division of the non-managerial hospital workforce amongst these groups leads to opposing class identification. According to the article the skilled workforce such as doctors, specialists can easily come together to form an association, even encouraged by the management, and are allowed to participate in the management of the hospital through the ideology of professionalism. This privilege is not accorded or permitted to the unskilled or semi-skilled workers making it much harder for them to organize or get the approval of the management.
The fact that there has never been a formal association least of all a union in any of the hospitals in Meghalaya is an indication of the difficulty of forming such a union. The reason are not hard to see. A union is always frowned upon by the management. For contractual and temporary workers, a union of some sort would spell trouble for the administration. It is easy to exploit, harassed, intimidate workers without a union. However, the subject matter of forming an association or a union lies not with the authority but with those who have common grievances and interests in the workplace. According to Ehrenreich, the unskilled/semi-skilled workers definitely need a union to make them feel part of the hospital and to ensure that they are adequately recognized in terms of financial placement as well as respect and status within the institution.
The workforce of Nazareth hospitals comprises a mixed population of local and non locals. The absorption ratio for the local workforce is high especially for lower grade unskilled work. The formation of the NWHU is a culmination of a series of meetings among the workers. They were encouraged to initiate the process of union formation after reading the pamphlets distributed around Shillong by TUR as part of its work campaign and living wages programme. TUR launched the work campaign in line with its People’s Proclamation which the organization has drafted on issues ranging from land, environment, Health, Education etc. The formation of the NHWU is a result of its work campaign related to employment issues enshrined in the proclamation.
TUR initiated the pamphlets distribution around town sometime in the month of August. Members from the group distributed these pamphlets to random strangers in the market place, bus station, parking lots etc. One of these pamphlets landed up with one of the hospital workers and the rest is history. The inauguration ceremony on 19th November saw more than 200 workers from the hospital which is more than the official recorded number of 140. Most had come (including nurses) to show their support to the fledging union which had been fighting an uphill task against all odds including the reluctance of the hospital management to readily acquiesce to the formation of the union within the premises of the hospital. The initial skepticism and hesitation surrounding the NHWU dissipated quickly in the last few weeks before the formal registration with the Labour office.
The organizational body of the NHWU is inclusive and based on democratic principles. The executive committee is a young team led by an enthusiastic President. Members of the union include long serving workers of the hospital. A lady, who had been working in the hospital for more than 30 years, shared her experience at the inaugural function. She said that she was optimistic that the union would go a long way in addressing many issues that workers encounter on a daily basis. In the words of the Deputy Labor commissioner the NHWU could become a catalyst for other workers in different private establishments to organized themselves.
The challenges are many. The NHWU has a huge responsibility to shoulder. Its priorities however have to be its commitment to the members of the NHWU. Now that it is a formally registered body, the workers of the hospital may finally find their place in one of the oldest working establishments in the city.
Long live NHWU. Long live the Union.