Building Power

June 14, 2024

Thousands of union members converge on Philadelphia for the quadrennial SEIU Convention.

Building Power 1_1199 May.jpg1199SEIU local has roughly 450,000 members in institutions stretching all the way from the northernmost parts of New York State—near the Canadian border— down to the south of Florida. But when it comes to flexing union muscle on the national stage, 1199 joins forces with another 1.5 million members across the entire U.S. and Canada who also belong to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Every four years, a collection of roughly 1,500 delegates—elected to represent the views of the entire two-million-strong SEIU membership—come together at the SEIU Convention to agree the political direction and priorities of this massive labor collective, while the rest of the country gears up for the general election in November.

When convention delegates met in Philadelphia from May 19-22 this year, they elected April Verrett to be the new SEIU president, taking over for Mary Kay Henry, who is retiring. Verrett has pledged to dismantle structural racism and tackle the rise in corporate power head-on.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris also addressed the convention. “November is going to be about two choices, so let’s be clear about that,” she said. “Whereas, the last administration buried our country in debt to pay for tax cuts for billionaires, we are helping dig families out of debt by telling billionaires to pay their fair share.”

The administration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris may be one of the most pro-labor in history, but that has not yet translated into a clear lead in the polls, as voters grapple with costof-living increases and widespread disinformation.

In order to help usher in another pro-worker administration in January 2025, SEIU members will target about six million people who are infrequent or reluctant voters in states like Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In a razor-thin election, these voters are likely to be critical.

Sophia Colley, an 1199 CNA from Titusville Rehab and Nursing near Cape Canaveral, Florida, took to the convention stage to introduce one of the speakers. “To be on stage presenting for 1199 Florida, I was beyond excited,” she said. “To be backstage was just breathtaking. I am elated. It energized me even more to continue the work of our union.”

Isaias Ruiz, an 1199 PCA from Bellingham, Massachusetts, was attending the convention for the first time. He felt so strongly that one of the resolutions was not inclusive enough—that he stood up in front of thousands of people to add a friendly amendment.

“I felt like it was missing LGBTQ+ protections, multireligion protections, and disability protections for the work environment,” he said. “I felt compelled to represent those groups on the mic and to insure that as a union we’re working on everybody’s issues. We cannot be a union if we’re divided. We have to stick together and protect one another. If any one of us is attacked, we are all attacked.”

Building Power 4_1199 Mag.jpgMaria “Ludi” Ramos, an 1199 RN at Mount Sinai Queens, took part in a panel at the healthcare delegation meeting, describing the union difference in New York during the height of the pandemic.

“I’m always proud and happy to be a union member, but during COVID that was one of the times that I was so happy to be because I know with 1199 we have a voice,” she said. “We have a partnership with management. That didn’t happen by chance. We demand to be part of the decision-making process. At a time when the CDC guidelines were questionable [regarding PPE], we pushed back. If they said use regular masks, we said no—that is not enough.”

Ramos added that when “hospitals were running out of isolation rooms and putting people all over the hospital,” workers demanded “HEPA [high efficiency particulate air] filters in those rooms to keep members safe.”

Noemi Guevara, an HIV Prep Navigator at Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, voted to join 1199 earlier this year, along with 250 of her co-workers.

“It is really nice to be at this convention because we are heading into contract negotiations soon and I’m learning a lot from everybody. It is really helpful to bring all this info into the negotiations,” she said.

Ana Medina, an 1199 Home Care Delegate from the Bronx, NY, said union members are not just fighting for themselves. “We are also fighting for vulnerable people like our seniors and our children,” she said. “It was so exciting to be here and feel all the collective power in the room.”