by Tom Grubisich
When the Medical University of South Carolina Board of Trustees earlier this month approved new grievance procedures for its basic workers, I wondered if justice at MUSC was finally being achieved after nearly 50 years.
It was in 1969 that overwhelmingly black and women hospital workers struck MUSC - then the Medical College of South Caroline - for decent wages and better working conditions. Out of the acrimonious strike that went on for 113 days, the hospital workers, who included nurses' aides, orderlies, kitchen help and other "non-professional" employees, did win pay increases that raised their floor to the federal minimum wage of $1.60 an hour. Before the strike, many workers made as little as $1.30 an hour, well below the federal minimum. But because the workers' nascent unionization was not recognized by MUSC in the strike settlement, a strong, transparent and permanent mechanism to enforce grievance claims about working conditions was never set up.
This big gap in what the strike settlement was supposed to do for workers continued decade after decade, with little public attention. Then, about two years ago, protesters led by the Healthcare Workers United, the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment and The Coalition - People United to Take Back Our Community began petitioning the MUSC Board of Trustees to resolve outstanding grievances and establish a firm, long-term mechanism to give workers better protection - and fulfill what the 1969 strikers had sought. On Friday, April 8, the trustees finally took action on the festering grievance issue.
Did this mean that the hospital workers had finally achieved social justice after nearly half a century? To find out, I went to Pastor Thomas A. Dixon, co-founder of The Coalition - To Take Back Our Community. Dixon has been a co-leader of the protests that have been mounted at meetings of the MUSC Board of Trustees since 2014. He is also running as a Democrat in the November general election against U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R), who is seeking his first full term after being appointed to the position by Gov. Nikki Haley in 2013 to fill the vacancy created when incumbent Republican Jim DeMint resigned to head the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.
Here's what Dixon told me regarding how he interprets what the MUSC trustees did on grievances:
Is there now social justice at MUSC, nearly a half century after the hospital workers' strike settlement?
Actually, looking at the whole story, I see it as more of a setback at best. This celebration moment was premature because, although the Board met and deliberated over these issues in executive session on Thursday, April 7, and although we were promised the final drafts several times immediately after the meeting, we did not receive anything that resembled a hard copy with the final approved revisions until a week later. We are reviewing those revisions for completeness.
Technically speaking, at the Board meeting, we had no way of knowing exactly what was contained in those documents because we never received them and we didn't hear what was presented to the Board by MUSC Chief Diversity Officer Anton Gunn since we arrived as he was closing his presentation. This represents a serious breakdown in the communication process that we thought we had established, and set us back instead of moving us forward in the inclusion process we’ve worked so very hard to achieve.
When I first interviewed you - last fall at the Central Mosque of Charleston's open house where then-Mayor-elect Tecklenburg spoke - you were optimistic about race relations improving in Charleston. Based on what the MUSC trustees have done regarding grievance procedures, what's your outlook about race relations now?
I will continue to remain optimistic about improving race relations in Charleston and across the board nationally because anything less than hope for a brighter future will lead me to frustration and possibly deciding to give up the struggle…which, of course, is not an option. This breakdown in communication at MUSC was extremely frustrating, but I refuse to look at this as an irreparable breach. The only option for me is to repair the breach and move forward.
The regional business community is now saying that race equality will be an integral component of its One Region strategy to make metro Charleston more economically competitive. Is this significant, and should advocacy groups like yours be united to make sure it happens as promised?
This is absolutely significant because all levels of our community must have a voice at the table in order for the community to be fairly and accurately represented in the economic process. Anything less represents a return to the class system that has created the problems we are fighting against now. Everyone’s voice matters and excluding the voice of a particular subset of people from the dialogue will only result in an exclusionary, divided system.