A New Labor Force

By Carla Murphy May 19, 2014

The floor of an intensive care unit is usually quiet, but ruckus can happen anywhere in a public hospital. Just now a broad-shouldered man who looks to be about 6’4" is pacing the floor and going on about a syringe and his big toe. A young resident in gray scrubs and blue safety gloves catches his breath on the opposite side of the nurses’ station. While a female nurse corners Bluto with what sounds like a prepared script–"Sir, you are disturbing patients who are in recovery and I need you to…"–Michelle Crentsil, 25, heads straight for the resident. "Are you okay? What do you need?" she asks before picking up the phone behind the nurse’s station to call security, assuring him, "I’m your union rep." Or, in other words, "I got your back."

What employees, temp and full-time, rich and poor, wouldn’t give to hear those four words uttered on their jobs, today, and Crentsil lives them. Since graduating Harvard four years ago, Crentsil has worked for SEIU-affiliated healthcare union, Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR) organizing residents, many of them people of color and immigrants like their patients, at 10 of New York City’s embattled public hospitals. In that position and as a founder in 2011 of Occupy Wall Street’s People of Color working group, she’s quickly established a level of credibility among labor leaders now easing into retirement but anxious too, about the future of the movement. And with women of color dominating labor’s new rank-and-file, it’s clear that Crentsil represents the future face and perspective of the leadership.

"The best way to fight back against corporate America, Citizens United and the like is by organizing workers," Anne Mitchell, retired, and one of a few African-American women organizers of her generation tells me. "Michelle just clearly understands that."

Bluto calms down about his big toe by the time security appears and it’s not surprising that the two men know Crentsil. At 5’11, with full make-up, a nose ring and blonde-highlighted Senegalese twists piled into a high bun, she’s not easy to miss against this hospital’s puke green-tiled walls. But Crentsil is also a town mayor of sorts.

She spends a few days each week roaming the floors of the hospitals in her portfolio, dropping in on residents and following up on their workplace issues, making small talk with doctors, nurses, security, janitors, it doesn’t matter. "I know you make this place run, too," is the undercurrent of the exchange, usually initiated by her and eased into by the object of her genuine affection.

Today, Crentsil roams Metropolitan, a teaching hospital in East Harlem where luxury high-rises sparkle in the distance and brown-bricked public housing projects squat across the street. W.I.C. and Medicaid offices, found like everything else by Spanish-language signs with lettering equally sized to the English, are positioned for easy access just off the entrance. Besides Manhattan subways, a public hospital is that increasingly rare meeting space for high-and-low, rich and poor, where Crentsil, the working-class kid from segregated Louisville, Ky., appears to flourish.

"How come you know this?" a South American resident calling himself, ‘the bastard son of Althusser,’ wants to know after Crentsil joined him in conversation with her thoughts about Italian philosopher, Gramsci.

"Oh, I took black liberation studies and women’s…," Crentsil says, perhaps about to explain the relevance.

"That’s nice," the bastard son says, eyes already on his computer screen. He’d wanted a soliloquy not an actual conversation. Crentsil is nonplussed.

"Well what did you study?" she booms, her voice a constant invite to a party you didn’t know you even wanted to attend. And just like that, she has the resident’s full attention once more.

Relationship-building with workers isn’t always easy or fun. But for Crentsil that’s also not the point. These seemingly knockabout conversations add up over time to familiarity and trust.

"Seeing the day to day, inner workings of being a doctor in a hospital system is great. But some of my most fruitful conversations I have with residents happen outside of the workplace," Crentsil had said earlier. "There’s only so much you can say on the job, but when we get out of the hospital and have a meal or even a coffee I get to hear how they are doing and how the working conditions affect them [outside of] work."

And that intimacy allows Crentsil to help residents fight for the important stuff like arranging better sleeping conditions for those pulling back-to-back shifts, negotiating contracts and haggling over job evaluations–"I’m concerned about this comment specifically," she’d earlier flagged for a female resident in a private meeting.

"Michelle is brilliant," her older brother and confidante, Victor, a 29-year-old software engineer, tells me, but not in the sense of her accomplishments, he explains. "She’s very passionate about issues but she also has a deep empathy for other folks," he says. "There’re people who’re smart but don’t know how to put themselves into other people’s shoes. I think that nexus is what she has."

"A lot of that harkens back to my mom," who was a nurse, Victor says. "She always reminded us that we can never put ourselves above working class people. This is where you come from."

Undoubtedly though, much of Crentsil’s empathy as well as a maturity and compassion that belies her 25 years, also derives from loss. Before her 7th birthday, Crentsil lost her best friend to leukemia and a beloved uncle–who took her to her first concert, Chaka Khan–to A.I.D.S.

Both deaths "put me in a position to understand things that a lot of young people don’t," she says. "And I remember being mad that I understood. Why me?"

More deaths within her large, extended family followed. And then, just a few months before heading off to Harvard, Crentsil, who had twice played violin at Carnegie Hall and was All-Years soccer throughout high school, nearly died. A semi-truck driving at high speed crashed into the driver’s side of her gold-colored Volvo one afternoon.

"I was a soccer player and a violinist. And then I wasn’t. Overnight." 

At Harvard, Crentsil rebuilt herself. There, she spent time with and started organizing workers who reminded her of mom’s political values and her family back home in Louisville. Through on-campus organizing, she discovered she had another passion, this one for social justice and workers’ rights. Whatever she likes, Victor says, "she goes for it full force."

So Crentsil, at 25, is on her second act. She spends much of her time thinking and working on how to help all workers tap out of the system. Whatever the labor movement will look like a decade from now, Crentsil will have a hand in shaping its future image.

Asked if she still plays violin, Crentsil who occasionally plays soccer, says, "Only when I go home." "And then," she says, because of the shoulder pain, "only for a little bit."