1199ers Put the Action in PAC

January 2, 2019

RN Kelley Gombert and PCA Evelyn Harris in Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital’s new cath lab.

Real world accomplishments illustrate political victories.

“As soon as I get someone’s ear, I’m going to talk about health care,” says Evelyn Harris, an 1199SEIU delegate who has worked as a PCA at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center for some 40 years.

When it comes to health care, it doesn’t matter whether you are Republican, Liberal, Tea Party supporter, or a Democrat, we who believe in health care justice should be working together, she says.

Living and working in Western New York’s Niagara county— where 57% of voters marked their presidential ballots for Donald Trump—Harris is well-versed in steering political conversations toward issues and away from partisanship. It is an approach that has achieved some significant, concrete results, both at her hospital and statewide.

A little over a year ago, 1199 members celebrated the opening of the only cardiac catheterization (cath) lab in Niagara County at their hospital, after a concerted campaign to bring it there. When a patient is in cardiac distress, rapid treatment is essential to minimize heart damage.

“Whiteouts are really common in the Buffalo area and many people do not have access to reliable transportation,” says Harris. “Having a cath lab right here in our hospital will save many lives.”

Working at Niagara Memorial since 1977, Harris knows how effective political action can be, even in an area which is struggling economically and facing fierce competition for healthcare dollars. In 1999 the hospital was about to be swallowed up into another system, just as 1199SEIU was merging with another union in the region.

“1199ers stepped up to the plate right away. This helped our political campaign and we ended up winning the fight to save our hospital,” remembers Harris, “Our political work had a very direct and meaningful effect on our job security.”

Again, in 2006, a new Emergency Room was unveiled at Niagara Memorial after a successful political campaign in which 1199ers worked with then-U.S. Senator for New York, Hillary Clinton.

“This union does a fantastic job in training members on how to lobby effectively in Washington or Albany, or talking to a council person,” says Harris.

She points out that political work is not just about campaigns aimed at securing resources for critical safety-net institutions like Niagara Falls Memorial. In 2000, 1199ers from all over New York State lobbied vigorously to get on the books a law that required hospitals to procure safe needles so that staff are not put at risk of contracting HIV, Hepatitis or any other virus from a needle stick.

Harris takes a holistic approach to her community’s health and wellness–and to garnering political support for related initiatives. Recognizing that much of Niagara Falls County is a food desert, she worked with her neighbors in the local community to set up a Local Food Action Plan.

One of its aims is to transform underused lots in working class and low-income communities into sustainable, chemical free, neighborhood farms. This work was inspired by the community based Kitchen Table of Civil Rights Movement. To gain access to public land to grow food, members need to lobby representatives around land use issues in their communities. “The political action team at the union gives us strategies to get our points across in a short length of time, so that we can have an impact,” says Harris.

In New York City, Maurice DePalo, a pharmacist at Montefiore Medical Center’s Westchester Square Hospital in the Bronx, saw firsthand what can happen when local communities give up on the ballot box. DePalo was shocked by the deplorable conditions he encountered while canvassing in the Bronx during the September Congressional primaries.

“It is dangerous to live in [public] housing. It hadn’t been cleaned in years. People were afraid to open their apartment doors,” said DePalo. “The front doors were broken and there were no garbage pails. We are talking about human beings here. It is not their fault where they were born.”

An up-close encounter with such neglect and poverty got DePalo thinking seriously about electoral representation in the district and voters’ connection to the people who represent them. DePalo wound up talking to voters about their political power and how they could influence everything from the quality of local schools to garbage collection.

“We have to educate people [who live in neighborhoods like that] and let them know their lives can change,” said DePalo, “The secret is to get people that care about you to represent you. PAC money goes to help motivate people to make a change. If you do nothing, nothing is going to happen.”

Getting out the vote needs to start well before the election, says Mount Sinai Petrie retiree Jacynth Stewart. Stewart, a former food service worker who served as 1199 delegate for more than three decades, tried to consistently communicate to members the reality of their political power and the value of their votes.

“When I was out canvassing for Obama in Cincinnati, I met a 100-year-old man who had never voted in his life,” said Stewart. “After we talked about how real change could come about through the ballot box, he registered to vote then and there.”

1199 Magazine: November / December 2018