Thursday, April 17, 2014
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Jewish pharmacists in Harlem and a Philadelphia union

The union that today represents many of Philadelphia's health care workers got its start during the Depression in New York City, its members a small group of clerks and pharmacists.

Jewish pharmacists in Harlem and a Philadelphia union

The union that today represents many of Philadelphia's health care workers got its start during the Depression in New York City, its members a small group of clerks and pharmacists. 

For this post, and to augment my profile of Henry Nicholas in the Labor Day edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, I'm going to recap a history of the union that Henry Nicholas now leads -- District 1199C of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, (NUHHCE), a division of AFSCME.

In 1936, four years after it was founded, the Pharmacists Union of Greater New York, showed its commitment to the civil rights movement by staging a seven-week strike in winter for the right of blacks to work as pharmacists in Harlem drug stores.  It also joined the AFL, trading in its name for a number, 1199.

In 1954, 1199 union voted to provide financial backing and other support  to the Montgomery bus boycott, earning it the beginnings of a long friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and later, his widow, Coretta King.

By 1958, the union, primarily white and Jewish, decided to organize hospital workers, who at that time had few rights, not even the right to a minimum wage. The members, who typically started work at 9 a.m., handed out leaflets at early morning shift changes at New York hospital's.  Montefiore was the first to become organized.

Nicholas, newly discharged from the military, started working at Mt. Sinai Hospital in 1959, and got involved in the union.    More hospital workers joined and the union expanded, all the while continuing to back civil rights leaders and their initiatives. In a speech to 1199 members made a month before he was assassinated in 1968, Martin Luther King described 1199 as his favorite union.

In 1969, 1199, later named the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, decided to go national and the first battle was in Charleston, S.C., where Nicholas and others led the workers on 113-day long strike.  On May 11, 1969, more than 5,000 people from all over the country marched in Charleston. The workers' action, which started with a phone call to the Southern Christian Leadership Council, a civil rights group, became a cause celebre for both the union movement and the civil rights movement.

In 1970, Nicholas came to Pennsylvania to organize hospital workers, with Nicholas, an African-American, assigned to Pittsburgh and another gentleman, who was white, selected for Philadelphia. The slogan that had been so successful in Charleston "Union Power + Soul Power = Victory" wasn't playing so well in Pittsburgh, so Nicholas and Black switched cities.

Over the next decades, organizational machinations ensued and 1199 split apart. Many locals, including the New York local, affiliated with SEIU, which also has a large health care membership. Nicholas' 1199c and the NUCCHE organization wound up affiliated with AFSCME, a relationship that proved problematic. You can read more about that in my blog on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, both SEIU's 1199 and Nicholas' group can and do lay claim to a rich heritage of civil rights activism.  

Watch Clem Murray's video of Henry Nicholas.

Tomorrow in my Jobbing blog: Politics, Barak, Hillary and some union head butting

Jane M. Von Bergen Inquirer Staff Writer
About this blog

Jobbing covers the workplace – employment, unemployment, management, unions, legal issues, labor economics, benefits, work-life balance, workforce development, trends and profiles.

Jane M. Von Bergen writes about workplace issues for the Inquirer.

Married to a photographer she met at her college newspaper, Von Bergen has been a reporter since fourth grade, covering education, government, retailing, courts, marketing and business. “I love the specific detail that tells the story,” she says.

Reach Jane M. at jvonbergen@phillynews.com.

Jane M. Von Bergen Inquirer Staff Writer
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