The current negotiations for a livable wage between low-wage workers at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and the leadership reminds us of the historical David and Goliath story, again. Putting aside the biblical source and broadening the analogy to a secular world, those without power against those with power is the same ole story here.
Why are we here again? Three years ago I gave a talk at the Fair Development Conference in Baltimore sponsored by United Workers titled “Saving Middle East Baltimore from the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions: David and Goliath”. (1) It was a history of land banking and “negro removal” tactics engineered by the Hopkins Institutions over the last 70 years. The impact of such exploitation on the health of the people and place of Middle East Baltimore was discussed. The question asked of the audience was how can we begin to measure the outcomes of the glaring gap between the growth of this powerful institution and the surrounding community, one of the most fragile, poor, and disinvested neighborhoods in Baltimore, with health indicators described by Johns Hopkins as one of the worst in the nation.
Fast forward to 2014 and today the prestigious institution continues its role of Goliath by exploiting those least vulnerable to assure its continued growth in wealth and health. This time the exploited “David” are none other than their own employees who do not earn a living wage. (2,3) If it was not so ironic it would be a wonderful “dark” comedy, particularly since many of the workers in low wage service jobs at the institution are African Americans. But this is not a comedy, a farce, or anything for anyone to laugh about; it is deadly. It is a story which continues to reveal the reason the gap between the rich and the poor and the effects on their health continue to widen: those with access to resources have better health and live longer lives while those with less resources have more illnesses and die at an earlier age. (4,5,6) Low wage workers seeking fair compensation for their labor cannot afford health insurance while working at the number one ranked health care institution in the world. The stress of not having enough money to make ends meet is consistent and chronic and sets up the body and mind to be vulnerable to acute and chronic illnesses such as infections, allergies, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, mental illness, cancers, addiction. (7,8)
Meanwhile the salary of the CEO of Johns Hopkins Hospital and the president of Johns Hopkins University-each earning more than $1 million / year -certainly assures them access to all the resources that would minimize the stressors of affording food, shelter, clothing, and health care. (2,9) This premier health care institution persuades a vulnerable and gullible public that they are there to save lives and make Baltimore a healthy place to live; but for whom? The president of Johns Hopkins University has spoken eloquently of the new Henderson-Hopkins School it is running in East Baltimore as being a model of , “restoring the city’s east side as a safe, prosperous, and vibrant community”. (3) A vibrant and healthy community begins with the members of the community having employment which allows them to afford their homes, health insurance, healthy food, and time to spend with their children and participate in school activities. Poverty-level wages do not allow a vibrant and healthy community to exist or grow. In fact poverty is the leading cause of poor health according to the World Health Organization, among others. (10) Through these unfair labor practices the institution contributes to health disparity/inequity and is itself a social determinant of poor health. In light of its institutes and programs receiving thousands of dollars to eliminate health disparities/inequities, address the social determinants of health, and rebuild healthy urban neighborhoods, there is grave contradiction in what it says it is doing locally, nationally, and internationally and what it is doing at home within its walls and its neighborhood. (11)
The tools that allow this exploitation of the right to a living wage and access to good health are racism and classism and the power that white-run institutions accumulated from the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, unfair laws, policies, and practices that grew the wealth of the few. The government institutions which rubber-stamped these policies and practices then, continue today as powerful public:private partnerships of neoliberalism. Transparency and accountability to the public remains low and corruption remains high. Large public subsidies, tax-exempt status, grants, and below-market value purchases of land from the government subsidize this private for-profit institution with public dollars and assure continued growth in power of this “Goliath”.
But today is a new day and after we confirm the data, what do we do? How can we support the current low-wage workers and their advocates-1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East- negotiating for a living wage that affords them health care and safe and sanitary living conditions? We can contact them through their website below, write letters to the editors of all periodicals in the city and beyond, call and write our public officials who vote on permits, grants, and tax-exemptions to the institution at all government levels, and write letters to the publications of the institution. (3) Students and faculty at the university are particularly helpful in writing and talking about this injustice to their colleagues. They can spread the word to their friends and colleagues at other institutions and learn more about wages at other prestigious hospitals and universities around the country. The institution has declared that if there is a strike it will have an alternative workforce ready to continue to provide services-their identified goals of health care delivery justifies their path of pay-inequity, “the-ends-justifies-the-means’ reality. If workers strike because they have no alternative, we can join in on the strike and show solidarity for our brothers and sisters willing to stand up to power: united we can send a powerful message that it is time for all employees to earn a wage which does not place them at risk of living in poverty and becoming sick. We need all the “Davids” to challenge this “Goliath” of Johns Hopkins and send a powerful message that we are tired of inequitable and non-sustainable wages that do not allow low-wage Baltimore workers to afford living in the very communities the institution is rebuilding.
This thinking and practice are revolutionary acts because it goes against the norm of accepting a powerful institution’s oppression of its employees fueled by its unhindered network of connections with government and corporate America. Today it may be service employees but we do not have to wait until tomorrow to see that this inequity in compensation for labor is widespread and is already affecting higher-waged employees at other hospitals and universities across the US. (12,13) Fair compensation helps to assure equitable and sustainable development in our city, and begins to narrow the income and health gap; anything else is a violation of the human rights and the health of individuals and communities and continues the legacy of race and class inequity. (14)