Our History

A Brief History of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East

Over 80 years on the frontlines for quality care, good jobs & social justice, Local 1199 was founded in 1932 by Leon Davis and a group of New York City pharmacy workers who were pioneers in the struggle for living wages and against racial segregation during the 1930s. The mostly white and Jewish union of pharmacists led a groundbreaking organizing effort among the largely Black workforce of the City’s pharmacies’ sodamen.

1199 members have always seen their union as part of a larger social justice movement, and in order to build the greatest voice, they knew they needed to help other healthcare workers unite. An injury to one is an injury to all.

In the late 1950s, during the first flush of the Civil Rights Movement, 1199 launched large-scale organizing drives at New York City’s Voluntary Hospitals i, mobilizing a workforce that was a majority of African-American and Latino women. Many of these workers were paid as little as $32 a week for a 48-hour week and were trapped in poverty. With an unprecedented 46-day strike in seven of the city’s most prestigious hospitals—including Montefiore, Mt. Sinai and Maimonides hospitals— they won 1199 recognition. .

A historic 1965 organizing campaign at Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville, NY in won hospital workers across the state collective bargaining rights. Other gains came in the next years, including the 1968 victory that established the $100 per week minimum and 1199’s Benefits, Pension and Training Fund. In 1969, a three month strike by 400 Black women workers at two Charleston, SC hospitals paved the way for 1199’s national expansion. Under the slogan “”Union Power, Soul Power” 1199 formed a national organizing committee and asked Coretta Scott King to be its honorary chair. Though their own organizing campaign was unsuccessful, the Charleston workers secured wage increases and a grievance procedure — and spurred the creation of new 1199 districts in Upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Washington state, New Mexico and elsewhere.

The years that followed were tumultuous. 1199 formed a short-lived National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees during the 1980s, but some constituent locals sought mergers with other unions, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) The flagship New York City local became independent. After Leon Davis’ 1982 retirement, the controversial presidencies of Doris Turner and Georgianna Johnson created divisions in the leadership. Dennis Rivera, a leader in the Save Our Union movement, was elected president of 1199 in 1989. That year, contract negotiations with the industry-wide League of Voluntary Hospitals broke down. Forty-six thousand 1199 members went on strike in a city-wide action and won a settlement, the last such strike up to the present.

The 1990s saw 1199 grow as it began to organize thousands of nursing-home and homecare workers in New York City and its suburbs.

In 1998, 1199 merged with SEIU to become 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. Over the next decade, some 20 other, smaller SEIU healthcare workers’ locals were merged with 1199SEIU, growing the union far beyond the New York Metropolitan Area—into Upstate New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Florida.

In addition to collective bargaining, contract enforcement, and new organizing, 1199 see political action as a core part of the union’s mission. This is because the healthcare industry is highly regulated by the government and the majority of healthcare funding comes from Medicare and Medicaid. In order to advocate for quality care, good jobs and fair funding, healthcare workers must have a strong voice in government.

In 2007, the members elected George Gresham to his first term as President and Maria Castaneda — the highest ranking woman of Asian descent in the labor movement — to her first term as Secretary Treasurer.


In recent years, the newly expanded and strengthened 1199SEIU grew still more with major organizing drives. Today, with over 450,000 members, 1199SEIU is the largest healthcare union in the nation, and continues to grow in strength and numbers. 1199SEIU members are moving forward in all our regions and nationally by working in coalition with progressive organizations to build the strongest voice for all working people.