How 1199 Became A Political Force

December 18, 2019

Today, politicians court us.


Thirty years ago, some 2,000 members of 1199 worked tirelessly to help David Dinkins become New York’s first African American mayor. “Dinkins will help the working class and especially my people,” said Antonine Michaud, a Haitian-American accounts payable clerk at Manhattan’s St. Luke’s Hospital at the time.

The role of 1199ers in the campaign was significant because the Union at that time was locked in bitter contract battle with New York’s League of Voluntary Hospitals and Homes. One League CEO was quoted as saying at the time, “Good, we’ll kill two birds with one stone—1199 and David Dinkins.” He was wrong on both counts. The Union also won a groundbreaking contract.

The Dinkins’ campaign helped establish 1199 as a major political force in the city and state. Member political mobilization actually began a year earlier when Local 1199 and the 1199 National Union endorsed the candidacy of the Rev. Jesse Jackson for president rather than wait for the AFL-CIO to decide on a primary endorsement.

Some locals followed suit. In Homestead, Pa., 7,000 steelworkers defied their national union to endorse him, as did auto workers in Wisconsin. 1199’s work helped Jackson carry New York City and to finish second in the Democratic primaries. His 1,218 delegates was the most for any runner-up at that time. His campaign laid the groundwork for many progressive candidates of color.

Jackson’s New York City supporters rode the momentum of the 1988 campaign into 1989. Many 1199ers simply exchanged Jackson literature and paraphernalia with David Dinkins material. The Union had worked closely with Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins and his chief aide, Bill Lynch, on several initiatives. It was Dinkins who championed the cause of homecare workers in the city, helping to win wage increases and improved benefits.

During the primary and general election campaigns, members flooded the streets with leaflets. Many attended and provided security at rallies. Others took part in phone banks, sound trucks and signing up volunteers. And on election day, members drove voters to the polls. Mayor Dinkins was defeated in 1993 by Rudolph Giuliani. Many say that Dinkins is not given the credit he deserves. Under his administration, crime in the city decreased more dramatically than at any time in the city’s history. He also decreased the size of the city’s homeless population. And he rehabilitated more housing in a single term than Mayor Giuliani did in two terms.

Throughout Mayor Dinkins’ tenure and afterwards, 1199 stepped up its political and legislative work. The Union not only helped elect worker-friendly candidates, but also helped win healthcare funding, and worker-safety and adequate staffing legislation.

As 1199 did with Jesse Jackson, the Union in 1992 threw its support behind Democrat Nydia Velazquez, a little-known candidate in New York’s 12th Congressional District. In a major political upset, Velazquez won the seat to become the nation’s first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress.

The nation’s Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer was the underdog when 1199 endorsed him over the popular three-term incumbent Al D’Amato in 1998.

New York’s current mayor, Bill de Blasio was near the back of a crowded Democratic primary pack in 2013 when he won 1199’s endorsement. He steadily moved to the front of the pack, especially after he was arrested while protesting the closing of Long Island College Hospital.

Mayor de Blasio was a veteran of the 1988 Jackson campaign, as was Patrick Gaspard, former political director of 1199. Gaspard left 1199 in 2008 to take a leading position in the Barack Obama presidential campaign. He became President Obama’s political director and later, U.S. ambassador to South Africa.


In the fight for representation and legislation, 1199 has played a key role in electing progressive state and local candidates and passing progressive legislation. In Florida, Union members played a key role in restoring voting rights for formerly incarcerated Floridians. In New Jersey, 1199ers helped elect Andy Kim to the state’s 3rd Congressional District, ousting Tom MacArthur, who was instrumental in attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In New York City, former 1199 organizer and researcher Melissa Mark Viverito served as the first Puerto Rican and Latina Speaker of the New York City Council. And in Maryland-DC, 1199er Veronica Turner has represented District 26 in the Maryland House of Delegates since 2003. She is also an officer in Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus.

Many of 1199’s member political activists gained valuable experience working in local and national campaigns. Margie Rodriguez was a medical biller at Brooklyn’s Brookdale Hospital when she took a leave in 2008 to work on the Obama campaign. “Obama woke up the country. I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said at the time. “I worked even though I had blisters on my feet. Nothing could stop me because my heart and soul were in it.”

Many other volunteers shared similar sentiments. “We went out because we all knew that we were helping to make history and changing the future,” said CNA Isata Caldwell from JFK Hospital in Edison, N.J.

Retired 1199 members represent another important force in the Union’s political army. They have performed every function from door-knocking to phone banking.

They and active members also have helped to make 1199SEIU’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Political Action Fund, one of the largest in the nation.

Throughout its regions, 1199ers are deeply involved in state and local budget fights and election battles on many levels. Today members are getting ready to step up in 2020 to participate in one of the most consequential elections in generations and to add another chapter to 1199’s remarkable political history.

1199 Magazine | November - December 2019