The President's Column: Our Union Rejects Today’s Poisonous Greed

June 28, 2017

The progressive values of 1199’s founders became the DNA of our Union.

I’m so proud of 1199SEIU for many reasons, but one that I’m most proud about is our diversity. There are 196 countries in the world and I’d be surprised if there are many that aren’t represented in our union. When you include all the denominations, there are some two dozen major religions practiced in our country and 1199 members are included in all of them. And of course we also have thousands of non-believers. 1199ers can be counted across the political spectrum. And yet we are all together in one union.

For anyone unfamiliar with 1199 history, it wasn’t always like this. Our union was formed in 1932 as a pharmacists and drugstore workers’ organization. The few thousand members were nearly all white men, and predominantly Jewish. The founding president, Leon Davis, was an immigrant from Poland whose family fled severe poverty, anti- Semitism and political repression.

The progressive values that led Davis to organize 1199 became the DNA of our union. These included the rights of workers to a voice on the job and a decent living; the willingness to “go to the mat” with the employers to achieve this; the necessity of unity of the membership and of solidarity with workers everywhere.

These same values led Leon Davis and his co-workers, some 25 years later, to organize the tens of thousands of workers in New York City’s voluntary hospitals—risking jail as this was against the law at the time—understanding that this new, much larger membership would be predominantly African-American and Latina women, thereby fundamentally changing the culture of 1199 forevermore.

That decision, and the heroic organizing drives that followed, was taken nearly 60 years ago. And we have now grown to embrace hospital workers, nurses, nursing home workers, homecare workers and every other sector of the healthcare industry, not only in New York City but throughout New York State, and in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington D.C. and Florida.

Former NYC Mayor David Dinkins, used to refer to New York City as “a gorgeous mosaic,” and I like to think of our union members that way. Our diversity—and our unity in diversity—is our greatest strength. Being an 1199er, it is always shocking to see news photos of the Trump Administration and Congressional leaders, who are nearly always a collection of white men.

Clearly this is not representative of what our country looks like. The traditional motto of the United States, printed on our coins and dollar bills, is the Latin e pluribus unum—Out of many, one.

But we are now living under a national political leadership that is perhaps the most divisive in our history since the days of Jim Crow apartheid.

All the more reason why we in 1199—whatever our color, faith, political viewpoint, job classification, neighborhood, country of origin, gender or sexual orientation—need to embrace the original slogan of the American labor movement: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Or, as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in another context, “We must learn to live together as brothers, or we are going to perish together as fools.”

We are living through a time when greed of a truly monstrous kind is being promoted by the most powerful men in our government—taking money from poor and working people and from the government programs for which we’ve fought so long, and giving it to already obscenely wealthy individuals and corporations. Unquestionably, this message is also being fostered by many employers in our country. Their most powerful weapon to achieve this is to divide our people—against those of other beliefs, colors, national origins, genders, and so on.

By its example, our union stands as a strong rejection of this poisonous ideology. By its example of unity in diversity, 1199 holds important lessons for our children, our communities and our fellow workers.

We take encouragement from Catholic social teaching under Pope Francis that human solidarity empowers everyone to attain their full potential through each of us respecting each other’s dignity, rights and responsibilities and makes the world a better place to live.

Labor movements throughout the world have long embraced the slogan of the working class of Chile, “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.” The people united will never be defeated! Let’s keep that in mind as we face the difficult challenges ahead.

- 1199 Magazine: May / June 2017