Remembering 1199’s History: How Local 144 Strengthened 1199

July 30, 2021

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When 1199 won a major New York League contract victory in June 1998, workers understood that they had been emboldened by their increased strength. A key reason for that strength was the recent merger with Local 144.

The unions’ parallel histories made them a natural fit. Both unions began healthcare organizing in the late 1950s. 1199’s members were mainly white male drugstore workers and 144 consisted of mainly white hotel workers.

Both unions took on the challenge of organizing previously forgotten and ill-treated workers of color. The unions occasionally competed bitterly for the same workers. The merger helped to remove those rivalries.

Both unions had been led by immigrant workers – Leon Davis from Russia and 144 President Peter Ottley from the Caribbean island nation of Grenada. Davis, who led 1199 for 50 years, died in 1992. Ottley headed 144 for 38 years and passed away in 1990. In 1987 he became the first Black grand marshal of New York’s Labor Day Parade.

Both unions embraced the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Local 144 proudly claimed that it was the first union in the country to win Dr. King’s birthday as a paid holiday in all its contracts. The unions frequently marched side by side in civil rights demonstrations and against healthcare budget cuts.

In 1998, 1199 News quoted Joe Walker about the two unions’ similarities. Walker had been associate editor of 1199 News in the 1960s and edited 144 News through most of the 1980s. Said Walker, “Both unions have made respect for individual workers the cornerstone of their achievements for predominantly Black and Hispanic memberships.”