Our Retirees: Monnie Callan

May 18, 2017

The 90-year-old retired social worker says there has never been a more important time than now to be an active member of the Union.

Monnie Callan has been a union activist for more than half her life. And with a recent celebration marking her 90th birthday, that is certainly saying something.

Callan was a social worker at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, NY for two decades, where she was an outspoken delegate leader, a fierce defender of workers’ rights and a powerful advocate for 1199 unity during two major citywide strikes.

“People who are wealthy can’t imagine what working people may suffer… and they often don’t care. Unions are the only way that workers can get what they need from the bosses.

“For me, the union is like an extended family, all working together to make the world a better place for everyone,” says Callan.

Her family of origin faced struggles of their own. Her father, Lewis Bellow, immigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, fleeing the violent anti-Semitic attacks, or pogroms, in what is now the Ukraine. The Bellows settled in Philadelphia. They were the first Jewish family in their neighborhood. The Bellows were not especially religious, but they were very socially conscious.

Monnie’s older sister Olive was photographed as a child wearing a “Votes for Women” sash during a women’s suffrage march in Atlantic City.

“The struggles we face now are very serious. I don’t remember a time quite like now when the country was so divided.”

Just after World War II, Monnie attended Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in Spanish. She was inspired, in part, by the Spanish Republicans’ struggle during the country’s 1936-1939 Civil War and their efforts to hold off Francisco Franco’s fascist regime. Her internationalism was inspired further when she attended the first World Festival of Youth and Students in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1947, where she met her husband. They raised a son and a daughter who are equally committed to social justice.

Callan eventually settled in New York City, earning her Masters in Social Work from Columbia University. Her first job was at the Lower East Side’s Hamilton-Madison House working with disadvantaged youth. “It was like a scene from West Side Story ,” she recalls.

During the 1980’s, working as a social work coordinator at Montefiore, she was dedicated to patients affected by the HIV virus in the early stages of the epidemic. During Callan’s tenure Montefiore launched an early response to the disease, earning the designation of one of the first comprehensive AIDS centers in New York State. Callan expresses great pride in that work; she was among the 1199ers who attended the First International AIDS Conference in Paris in 1986.

Callan’s steadfast Union activism is the thread running through her life and career. Her advancing years may slow her, but they have little chance of stopping her, she says. She urges retirees to support the Union and its actions as a way of expressing their power; with threats to programs like Medicaid and Medicare always looming, retiree voices are more critical now than at any time in Union history. At press time she was planning to participate in the New York City March for Health on April 1.

“It has never been more important to be an active member,” she said. “The struggles we face now are very serious. I don’t remember a time quite like now when the country was so divided.”

1199 Magazine | March/April 2017