Remembering 1199’s History: 1956 Contract Victory at Whelan’s Drugs

July 23, 2021

Screen Shot 2021-07-23 at 7.04.12 PM.pngIn 1199’s storied history, its victory against the Whelan Stores Corporation counts as one of its most dramatic. At the time, the small but scrappy local of just 5,000 members was hailed for taking on a national drugstore chain. After a bitter fourth strike against Whelan’s in 1953, the workers won a groundbreaking forty-hour, five-day-a-week contract.

Three years later, just days before a July 1 contract deadline, the Union won a three-year pact for 1,000 Whelan members. Negotiations were led by 1199 Pres. Leon Davis, who hailed the agreement as “another decisive step forward in our fight to win improved standards in the chains.”

The newspaper of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union (RWDSU), with which 1199 was affiliated, praised the contract. The workers won a $7.35 contract package, including $6 a week in wage increases, a third week vacation after 10 years, an additional one percent employer contribution to the pension fund and improvements in minimum hiring rates.

The victory was significant also because 1199 and other left-wing unions struggled for survival throughout the onslaught of the anti-union McCarthy era of most of the 1950s. The victory also meant that 1199 had all but exhausted its organizational potential in New York City’s drugstores.

One year later Davis met with the organizing genius Elliott Godoff during which they discussed the possibility of organizing impoverished hospital workers. A short time later, Davis put the hiring of Godoff to a meeting of Union shop stewards. They agreed.

Two years later, the drugstore victories would pale in comparison to what would be accomplished in the city’s voluntary hospitals.