Little Women

Comment by David Hughes: From the time I became aware of the Industrial Workers of the World, decades ago, I’ve called my wife Andrea Carney “the accidental Wobbly.” The Wobblies’ modus operandi is to organize on the job and call for what’s needed—if not take over the means of production entirely. Here’s the story of how Andrea did the former. It’s taken me months to get her to tell this story, and I’m so grateful that she has.

In 1973 my then-husband left his business to become a freelancer. We needed money so I decided to go back to work—at the Bullock’s department store in Sherman Oaks. Meanwhile I enrolled in a medical assistant training program at Los Angeles Valley College and received my certificate in May of 1974. After a month of internship I looked for a job.

In 1974 I was hired by a doctor who I’ll call “Bernie” who shared a suite with two other private practitioners. My duties eventually included both front office and back office. Experience at my husband’s business had prepared me well for the bookkeeping I did at the new job. And my college training for insurance processing also served me well; my billing always was perfect.1 Within my first year the other two receptionists asked to have an insurance processor hired for all three doctors. I thought that was strange because those receptionists already were underworked. When the new processor was hired, the work was so substandard—by my standards anyway—that I took the insurance work back to do it myself.

Before I was hired, Bernie’s practice had been undermined because when prospective clients called, the receptionists refused to book them. So I not only did the insurance billing that they should have done, I had to do the booking as well. My efficiency at doing so proved too much for Bernie. When he complained that I was booking too many Medi-Cal enrollees, I told him, “They need care too!”2

Bernie was maybe a little eccentric but he was as smart as any doctor I ever worked with later at Kaiser. It helped that we were on the same page politically and work-wise. We created an environment where everything ran smoothly. Bernie treated me almost like a peer, calling me aside as a sounding board for diagnoses. We’d discuss politics as often as how the day had gone in the office.

One of Bernie’s anecdotes is typical of the things he’d mention. When he was doing a hospital residency stint in the maternity ward he found that some of the babies had been given names that were quite questionable. The mothers in question, young and black, had no partners. So grateful for a safe birth, they asked their obstetricians to name their babies. The doctors then would give the children disgustingly disparaging names, but so obscure that the women were sure not to realize they were the butt of a sick joke.

Bernie wasn’t liked by my coworkers and this dislike was redirected to me. It was as if we were the two weirdos in the office. Once, when one of the older receptionists was trying to make me feel awful about myself, I confronted her using firm but non-insulting language that I’d learned in Radical Therapy; she took it well, she started treating me nicely, and we were able to interact amiably.

I was ten years older than the two other medical assistants—I’ll call them “Susie” and “Linda”—and this may have had something to do with their dislike for me. They were challenged by my efficiency and resented ever having to pitch in to help this one-woman show who was doing twice the work they were. I was only there about a year when I decided to leave my husband. On a Friday night after work I told him I was leaving and by Monday I had my own apartment filled with the used furnishings we bought from yard sales. I told everyone in the office and they were very surprised. Bernie was afraid that the separation was because my job was wearing on me. But I explained about my husband, “He was too controlling. I’m not just a wife and mother. I need space to find out who I am.” Within a week Susie left her husband. The next week Linda did the same.

These life-changing decisions couldn’t have happened without me planting some seeds as we filed charts behind the reception desk. I remember Susie telling me that her car radio had been stolen by a “spic.” When I asked, “What’s that?” she replied, “A Mexican.” So I asked, “How did you know?” and she told me that, according to her husband, “there was taco sauce all over the dashboard.” Another night when I came out of my office Susie told me, “My husband just called. He wants to know what I’m going to fix for dinner when I get home.” I knew he’d been home for a couple of hours so I said, “Why doesn’t he get his own damn dinner? He could cook for you.” I never had such interactions with Linda. She never complained, but obviously something was wrong at home. This was at the height of second-wave feminism. I asked myself, “Why are these women with men who don’t treat them well?” Susie went on to marry, of all people, a defense attorney who worked in our building.

From the beginning of my time there I’d been wearing street clothes on the half day that each of us medical assistants would work when we had to work a half Saturday. Within two or three months Susie and Linda followed suit—to the point that they both wore halter tops and short shorts, which even I felt was taking it a bit far (the doctors agreed). After we’d left our husbands we questioned why uniforms were necessary in the first place and got the doctors to allow us to wear regular clothes. Finally I put a bug in the ear of all my fellow workers that we needed health insurance, just as I’d insisted at my husband’s business. We all met in the chief doctor’s office saying we wanted medical insurance for us and our families. I myself knew of several plans that made adding family members affordable. They gave us the insurance—including dental—and we paid only a few dollars premium a month. The group medical plan included not only my coworkers and me but also the doctors and their families.

Four years after I started there I was infected by an inner ear virus that caused me to fall on my face in the street in March of 1978. A former employee, Karen, filled in for me, but she called me after two weeks to say, “I don’t know why you didn’t fall on your face two years ago!” In other words, Bernie was so demanding that she felt overwhelmed. I didn’t need Karen’s encouragement not to return to that office; I’d been thinking about leaving even before my accident. I wanted to work somewhere that wasn’t so confining. I was able to return to work in June, but I didn’t. Instead I applied for a job a Kaiser and began at the West L.A. facility later that summer. I worked twenty-six years at Kaiser and was so excited to be in a labor union. The interpersonal challenges were the same, however, but being a union member was reassuring—until I actually tried to participate.

Header image:
Clinic Assistant Graduating Class
Andrea Carney, middle row
second from right

  1. My back office work would excel, too. Bernie trained me to perform X-rays after he was displeased with my technique, which I had learned from the other two clinic assistants. He taught me how to measure a person’s body correctly. On a day that I had to work for another doctor in our office I took an X-ray of a big client with a burly torso. When I brought the image to the doctor, he told me, “Take another X-ray.” I did so, and twice more he asked me to take another. “I can’t believe this, Andrea,” he said. “You’re the first person who caught the bullet in his chest.”
  2. Medi-Cal is California’s Medicaid program. At the time I had to fight with Medi-Cal to get them to reimburse Bernie for the services he had provided enrollees.

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