Eliseo Medina: The organizer is a sparkplug

February 24, 2015

By David Martin

Eliseo Medina, the former international secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), is described by the Los Angeles Times as “one of the most successful labor organizers in the country” and was named one of the “Top 50 Most Powerful Latino Leaders” in Poder Magazine. Medina also leads the union’s efforts to achieve comprehensive immigration reform that rebuilds the nation’s economy, secures equal labor- and civil-rights protections for workers to improve their wages and work conditions and provides legal channels and a path to citizenship. Medina’s work to help grow Latino voting strength in the 2012 elections is widely recognized as a key factor in propelling the 2013 debate in Congress over common sense immigration reform.

Medina, who is part of a panel discussion on organizing for change at the third annual Lown Institute conference next month, provided some insights to David Martin.

You grew union membership in your local San Diego union from 1,700 to 10,000 in 5 years.  How did you grow union membership so dramatically?

Regardless of who it is, everyone wants the same thing: They want to provide a better life for their families, they want a job that is fulfilling, and they want to be treated with respect.  Organizers must provide a vision of how someone can attain those things. Once you show someone a path to attain those things they will join you. The organizer is the sparkplug to start the process but it comes from the people who can see a better life for themselves and their family.

And the organizer must be able to inspire confidence that the better life can be attained. People have to see that if they join together things will work.

The RightCare Alliance is building a movement for a better healthcare system. How can the movement articulate what a better healthcare system looks like?

Everyone knows health care is broken. And everyone knows the status quo is unacceptable, but they feel powerless to change it because there are so many powerful interests at work in the system. Insurance companies and large health systems seem to control all the levers of power so people feel powerless. We have to show them that they can make a difference.  One way to do that is to demystify the process. Show people who the system works for and who is controlling things so they can see where they need to push.

People want access to care, and they want high quality and affordable care. Show them who stands in the way of that? And then give people a strategy. Once you show them what is standing in their way and you give them a strategy to fight back, they don’t feel helpless.

And then give people something that they can do. Something tangible.

Once people have come together, they start to realize they have power and they will continue to work together even when things get tough and there are setbacks.

You have to remind them that it takes time and that they will have to be patient.

Why are you coming to the Lown Institute 2015 conference?

To share my experience as an organizer. I worked with Marshall Ganz and he suggested I speak with your attendees about how to organize. You want to help doctors and nurses and others become part of a movement to change healthcare and I’m happy to tell you about my experience organizing workers and share what I know.

How would you help docs organize?

I don’t know much about what doctors learn in medical school, but I imagine that they learn to work independently. So you may have to remind them that here they will need to work together.  And then I would start by having doctors talk to one another. A doctor might ask him or herself: what are the “issues” I have in my profession, and what do I see that is wrong.  Then ask what his or her colleagues see as issues or concerns in the system. This conversation will show what common areas of concern there are.

Of course doctors have standing in the community, so people will listen to them. Docs are just like everyone else. They want satisfying work where they feel valued.

What is your vision of a better health care system?

I would like to see everyone have access to healthcare because people who can’t go to a doctor just end up more sick. I’d like to see real universal coverage, that regardless of your occupation that you have good health care. Universal coverage is the first step. Then you can address quality and cost.