The Wisdom of ExperienceAugust 22, 2018
As 1199’s leadership emphasizes the importance of growing the Union by recruiting young members and leaders, it hasn’t lost sight of the importance of its veteran members. The value of veteran workers was demonstrated in the recent contract victory of some 80,000 New York 1199ers in the League of Voluntary Hospitals and Homes.
Some of the members of the League negotiating committee brought decades of 1199 experience to the contract campaign. Among those is Richard Benincasa, a pharmacist at Forest Hills Hospital in Queens and a delegate for 35 years.
“So much of what I’ve learned over the years I owe to those who came before me,” Benincasa says. The son of a pioneer 1199 pharmacist, Benincasa has used his organizing skills to help transform Forest Hills Hospital from a hospital in which 1199ers were the minority into a wall-to-wall 1199 institution. “Being able to draw on workers throughout the institution makes a huge difference,” he says.
Veteran union experience may be even more important in regions with less 1199 density and political clout. This is especially true in the South, which has a long history of anti-union sentiment. That is what Pamella Honeyghan, a unit secretary at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, has had to confront as a delegate for the last 44 years. Honeyghan says she drew strength from her leaders.
“I heard civil rights leaders like Coretta Scott King speak during 1199’s organizing campaign in Maryland,” Honeyghan recalls. “I was impressed that she was carrying the torch after Dr. King’s death.” So impressed, in fact, that she decided to also pick up the torch of activism. “When I joined the Union, I learned the importance of unity and solidarity. I was shy at first, but I learned that as a Union member I could raise my voice and be protected and defended.”
That lesson was brought home to her after she was unfairly fired for insubordination. Honeyghan filed a grievance and her case went to arbitration.
“I won and got my job back, and the supervisor who had fired me ended up getting fired,” she affirms. Honeyghan says the experience taught her not only how to defend herself, but that she could use those same skills to defend others.
As have many Union delegates, Honeyghan learned that the fight for dignity and rights at the workplace was not separate from the wider war for all working people. She soon immersed herself in community and political struggles.
“Political work is part of being a good leader,” she says. “I’ve been in many campaigns. I’ve done door knocking here in Maryland and also in Pennsylvania and Virginia.” Polly Henry, a CNA at Cold Spring Hills Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation on Long Island, NY, learned early on in her 1199 membership that a social justice union can help workers as well as the wider society.
“My Union has opened many doors for me and each time I walk through one I try to keep that door open for others,” Henry says. Unlike Benincasa and Honeyghan, Henry is a relative newcomer with 15 years of Union experience. But she has packed a lot of 1199 work in her 15 years. “I didn’t know anything about unions when I arrived at Cold Spring,” she says. Other members drafted her as a delegate recognizing her work ethic, leadership ability and strong communication skills.
“In all my years on the job, I’ve never been late,” she says. “That’s the way I was raised in Jamaica. That’s what I was taught.” Her record is all the more impressive because she has worked many different shifts and often works two jobs.
“I became a citizen in 2009, but while I was [preparing for citizenship] I was educating myself and my Union was helping me achieve my goals, such as becoming a CNA, getting involved in politics and eventually earning my citizenship.”
Henry couldn’t vote in 2008, but she threw herself into the presidential campaign for then-Sen. Barack Obama. Today, she is a Democratic committeewoman and an activist in Long Island politics. She believes in the importance of community.
“The Union has been my village,” she emphasizes. “And as Hillary says, ‘It takes a village.’ The Union helped send my daughter to college, and she is now the leading scientist in her company. I was given help and that’s what I do as a delegate. Whatever I know, I pass on to the members at my workplace.”
The same is true for Pamela Honeyghan.
“We’ve had wonderful leaders in our Union and I learned from and was inspired by them,” she says. “I understand the need to pass on what I’ve learned.”
Benincasa says he learned much while he was active in the 1980s in the Save Our Union campaign that eventually ended deep divisions and put 1199 on the road to becoming a political powerhouse with goldstandard benefits.
“One of the reasons I became a delegate was because workplace issues weren’t being addressed at the time,” Benincasa says. “We’ve come a long way, but today we have other challenges.” He’s concerned about the corporatization of health care and with it greater attacks on unions and working people. “We have to keep pace with a fast-changing industry and make sure employees know that we have their back. We need to ensure accountability and greater efficiency. We are the best, but in the current political climate we need to get even better.”