The President's Column: Demanding what we Deserve

April 27, 2023

As healthcare workers, we’re leading the way on pay.

GG_42522.jpgIn 1959, a group of 5000 New York City drugstore workers made the audacious decision to organize the city’s hospital workers. It was audacious because, among other things, it was against the law at the time and the leaders of what was then Local 1199 were prepared to go to jail. It was also audacious because those drugstore workers, overwhelming Jewish men, were going to organize tens of thousands of mainly Black and Latina women, who were being paid $32 for a six-day workweek.

Their daring paid off and eventually that tiny union grew to become our 450,000-member strong 1199SEIU we know today.

In organizing the voluntary (not-for-profit) hospitals of New York City—and eventually the suburbs—the union also compelled the employers to organize themselves into the League of Voluntary Hospitals and Homes. Ever since, the 1199/ League contract, with its world class health and pension benefits, has set the standard for healthcare workers, not only in 1199, but throughout the country. And the League members constitute the beating heart of our union.

I mention this history to give some context to what we have just accomplished in what amounted to an early Spring Offensive in New York. Our members, represented by 500 bargaining committee members representing all job titles and institutions, reopened our contract with the League employers. With thousands of members making their concerns known inside their institutions, their message was received. After several days and nights of hard bargaining, we won agreement on a 7 percent raise on July 1, 2023; a 6 percent raise on October 1, 2024; and a 5 percent raise on October 1, 2025.

That was just the first step. The second came on March 21, when thousands of New York 1199ers converged on the State Capitol in Albany to demand the governor and legislature do the right thing: provide the funding that the state’s patients and their caregivers deserve in the wealthiest country (and one of the wealthiest states) on earth.

By now, it is no mystery that we are the only advanced industrial country in the world without a healthcare system worthy of the name. These three years of the coronavirus pandemic have brought that conclusion home to anyone paying attention. A hodgepodge of private, public, forprofit, not-for-profit institutions in every sector of healthcare— long term care, acute care, home healthcare, etc.—compete for public dollars (taxes) in large part to pay off private, profitable insurance corporations. We desperately need—and deserve—a rational healthcare system that puts people first—like Canada or Costa Rica have, to name just two neighboring countries.

Meantime, we have to work with what we have. Today, home care is nearly paid entirely by Medicaid. Nursing home care is about 85 percent paid for by Medicaid and Medicare. Hospital care is paid for by Medicare or Medicaid by 30-to-80 percent, depending on the patient population. This is to say, we need to convince our government to pay for patient care—including caregivers. The challenges facing healthcare workers and the people we care for have never been greater. Burnout, fatigue, short-staffing, low wages, chronic underfunding of healthcare services, and a lack of appreciation by those in power of the daily sacrifices made by workers, have brought our system to crisis.

Remember back in April 2020, when hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers came out on their fire escapes, balconies and front porches to applaud our members as shifts changed? We were “essential workers.”

Our employers, government officials, editorial writers all called us “heroes.” The attention has gone away but our members are still essential workers and are still heroic and they need to be compensated accordingly. We have a new governor in New York, Kathy Hochul, who is still learning the ropes. And we went to Albany to help bring her up to speed, to let her know just how important 1199ers are to the health of New Yorkers, not to mention to the electoral hopes of her and her colleagues.

From historic strikes to groundbreaking legislative and political victories, over the decades our organization—through your leadership and activism—has grown to become the most powerful voice for healthcare workers anywhere. What we accomplish together as an 1199 family has far-reaching impacts for our healthcare system and the entire labor movement. What we have done this spring in New York is to build this model of success—one we must export to the entire nation to ensure that no healthcare worker or patient is ever left behind.

1199 Magazine: March / April 2023