1199's Historical Political Influence in the SouthOctober 18, 2023
The Union has been working (and winning) in the southern states for decades.
Long before 1199 had even organized healthcare institutions in the South, members were participating in solidarity actions, contributing funds and traveling to the region to take part in political campaigns.
1199 joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s, in part because the federation believed in organizing all workers regardless of status or region. The leadership understood that key to labor solidarity was the fight against racism and discrimination.
The cultural work of the Union reflected that understanding. For example, 1199ers flocked to Union-produced plays and musicals about civil rights struggles. The Union launched its annual Salute to Freedom celebration not long after the presentation of a play dramatizing the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. Many award recipients, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made their way to those events directly from campaigns in the South.
In the 1950s, members reached into their pockets and pocketbooks to contribute to the Montgomery bus boycott to integrate public transportation. In 1960, 1199ers picketed New York City Woolworth stores in solidarity with Southern students battling segregation.
In the late 1960s, Coretta Scott King served as honorary chair of the Union’s national organizing committee. In 2004, the work of 1199ers and their allies in Florida, especially in the Latino and Black communities, laid the groundwork for later victories.
That deep commitment to racial equity kept the Union active in the South well into the next century. For example, 1199ers marched and rallied with Florida SEIU members to press for an honest recount of Florida votes after the contested 2000 presidential election.
The 2008 national elections marked a high point for 1199 both in the South and around the nation. Members wanted to help make history by propelling the then Senator, Barack Obama, to become the nation’s first Black president. Beginning in July, some 400 Union members and staff were deployed in 18 states, including Florida, Virginia and North Carolina. Hundreds took buses and vans to swing states. SEIU members, including 1199ers, knocked on over three million doors and completed over 16 million phone calls. One canvasser repeated Obama’s call to voters: “We are the people we have been waiting for.”
Barbara Holmes, a CNA at St. Cabrini NH in Dobbs Ferry, NY, worked in North Carolina. “Canvassing was a new experience for me,” she said. “But my family encouraged me to be part of history. When I saw that Senator Obama had won, I shouted, ‘Lord, thank you.’” Obama carried North Carolina, Virginia and Florida.
In 2012, the 1199 Magazine traveled throughout Florida to report on members’ election work’ — noting how 1199SEIU Florida was the fastest-growing union in the Sunshine State and helping voters to successfully reverse the state’s flawed purge system — a scheme that had threatened to disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters.
Rafael Suarez, a CNA at Kissimmee’s Osceola Regional Medical Center, and a former New York City hospital worker, was among the Member Political Organizers (MPOs) interviewed. He stressed that he was working on the campaign because he saw the close connection between political work and union work. “We have to elect politicians who support health care and are willing to stand up for patients and workers,” Suarez said.
His message resonated with members. “I’m a registered Republican and I’m voting for President Obama,“ said Karen Quattlebaum, a surgical tech at Largo Medical Center in the Tampa region. That fall, President Obama repeated his victory in the state.
Members were also called upon to fight for voting rights in the South the following year. They were among 940 protesters arrested over 13 consecutive “Moral Mondays” led by then North Carolina NAACP President Rev. Dr. William Barber.
The actions included civil rights, labor, environmental and other progressive groups. It also drew the support of hundreds of retired 1199 members living in North and South Carolina
In 2016, Governor Pat McCrory – a target of the Moral Monday demonstrations – was the only incumbent Republican in the country to lose a statewide race.
1199ers joined Georgia retirees in 2020, too, as they pounded the pavement and knocked on doors to win close victories for President Joe Biden and Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. They did it again in 2022, helping to reelect Warnock to the U.S. Senate. Those victories were decisive in preventing far-right control of Congress’ upper chamber.