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This Day in Labor History: May 8, 1959

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On May 8, 1959, Local 1199, the union of New York hospital workers, went on strike. This action, while not really successful, played a critical role in not only organizing hospital workers and expanding collective bargaining rights, but also in pioneering multi-racial organizing coalitions among service workers who were becoming an increasingly sizable part of the American workforce.

Local 1199 was founded in 1932 as the Pharmacists Union of Greater New York after merging several smaller unons. From its beginning, it both took on segregation and used industrial tactics to organize the hundreds of pharmacies in the city. 1199 was led by Leon Davis, a Russian-born drugstore clerk and ex-communist, taking on the name in 1936 when it received that number within the Retail Clerks International Association. It bolted the AFL for the CIO in 1937, one of many tiny unions to do so. Its leftist leadership and anti-racist politics meant it was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s but it largely escaped unscathed, in part because it was so small. It found a home in the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union in the late 1940s, previously known for very little except being the union that Montgomery Ward resisted so stringently in World War II that the Roosevelt administration nationalized the store’s headquarters. 1199 also pioneered a union-led health care plan for its members in 1945 that provided employer paid hospital, disability, and life insurance. This was later expanded to be union-administered in 1948 and to include prescription drug benefits in 1951.

By 1957, it had organized about 90 percent of New York’s drugstores. It then set out to organize the city’s hospitals, wanting to extend its excellent benefits to other workers in the city’s rapidly growing but poorly paid health care industry. Nationally, there were 2.5 million workers in health care by the late 1950s, more than steel and railroads combined. But like today’s emphasis on industrial and coal mining work as the real union jobs as opposed to the vastly more numerous service sector jobs, there was little attempt to organize these workers. The hospital workers were a highly racially diverse lot with large numbers of African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, but this fit 1199’s long anti-racist politics. It won an early success in 1958, organizing Montefiore Hospital after management cut a long-standing benefit that allowed workers to eat in the cafeteria for very low cost that would be deduced from their paychecks. That hospital already had good conditions for organizing because it housed a lot of the workers onsite and thus the black and Puerto Rican workers already knew each other. They built a culture of standing up for each other even before 1199 started organizing. Organizers reported that the African-American workers were easier to organize than the Puerto Ricans but by the summer of 1958, a majority of both groups carried union cards. Montefiore settled in December 1958, granting a $30 a month increase in pay, overtime pay, grievance procedures, sick leave, and vacation time.

The organizing quickly spread because the wins unionized hospital workers had accomplished created a huge gap in conditions with non-union hospitals. A unionized 1199 pharmacist made $120 for a 40-hour week with benefits where as Beth Israel dietary workers made $29 a week for a 48-hour week and an orderly at Mount Sinai reported making $17 after taxes. Many non-union hospital workers were on welfare to make ends meet. 1199 announced it would organize the city’s 35,000 workers in hospitals and nursing homes. After a bit of a hiccup when it got overstretched, it focused on six hospitals where it had high support, largely Jewish hospitals such as Beth Israel, Beth David, and Mount Sinai. The vote in those six hospitals to strike was 2,258 to 95. Hospital officials obtained a restraining order but could not serve it to Davis or the other union leaders as they went into hiding. The strike started on May 8 at 6 am and nearly all of the 3,500 workers went on strike. They received great support from New York’s other unions, who told their members that they needed to support the strikers regardless of race. Said one local to its members, “These strikers are human beings, no matter what their color or country of origin.” 175 union locals provided active support for these workers, with donations pouring in that allowed these impoverished people to maintain their strike.

On March 19, New York mayor Robert Wagner tried to negotiate a settlement, but details are vague today about his offer, the workers overwhelmingly voted to reject it, and 9 more hospitals saw their workers join the strike. The hospitals won injunctions against Davis and other leaders, who were put in jail. It did not matter. In fact, this only increased the contributions from Democratic political clubs around the city. The president of the New York NAACP sent out a press release on May 17 calling on those “who are of Latin-American descent or African descent to rise up in protest and demonstrate your objections to this type of injustice that is now being imposed on our brothers and sisters.” Black and Latino leaders around the city, including Adam Clayton Powell, organized a march on the hospitals on May 24 to demand union recognition for the workers. People such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Bayard Rustin, and Reinhold Niebuhr then endorsed the strike.

On June 22, after 46 days on strike, Wagner again intervened. He sat both sides down and hashed out an agreement that was only a very partial victory for 1199. It did not grant them union recognition and instead created a committee that would arbitrate future disagreements. But the organizing continued internally and a year later, 3,000 hospital workers would be represented by collective bargaining agreements. 1199 constantly submitted demands to this committee while realizing that true victory would not be achieved until New York granted workers collective bargaining rights.

1199 continued its aggressive organizing and soon spread beyond New York City. In 1962, Davis was imprisoned for 30 days during a strike to organize El-Beth Hospital, which led not only to a union victory but to New York extending collective bargaining rights to non-profit hospitals, necessary because the National Labor Relations Act had excluded hospital workers because those were largely black workers and it required southern support to pass. That was won in no small part because A. Philip Randolph played a crucial role in organizing the strike and his stature was so great that he commanded enormous respect. By 1964, it expanded to New Jersey and eventually throughout the region, although an attempt to organize hospitals in Charleston, South Carolina in 1969 ran into a freight train of anti-unionism combined with hatred of the civil rights movement.

In 1984, 1199 left the Retail Union and remained independent for awhile. In 1998, 1199 merged with the Service Employees International Union, helping to make SEIU the nation’s most powerful and important union in the twenty-first century.

I borrowed from Frederick Douglass Opie’s Upsetting the Apple Cart: Black-Latino Coalitions in New York City from Protest to Public Office, in the writing of this post.

This is the 219th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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