SEIU Local 1199

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The Workers
SEIU Local 925
WFSE Local 1488
UAW Local 4121
SEIU Local 1199
GCC/IBT Local 767M

 The Origins of SEIU 1199NW


By  Rebecca Brown
(June 2002)


          1199 first began in New York as a union of pharmacists. This union was unique in the fact that it had members of all races and ethnicity, and this was a core idea in their organization. Very few unions in the 30s supported integration in actuality, though some claimed to. 1199 joined the American Federation of Labor (AFL) as part of the Retail Clerks International in 1937. In 1943, it briefly joined with another CIO retail union, Local 830, a merger that was nearly fatal in a time when most of the members were fighting in WWII.[1] However, 1199 “reorganized” in 1945, once again as an independent. They continued to be successful until 1957, when they had exhausted the supply of unorganized drugstores. When Elliott Godoff, one of the first people to ever organize hospital workers, proposed that 1199 start organizing hospital workers, it was met interest, if not enthusiasm. As the president of 1199, Leon Davis, recalled later, they were looking for a challenge.[2] At the time, however, it was on a very small scale, for no one as yet thought of hospitals as “industries”, who would be open to mass organization.   


Organization of the Healthcare Industry

          At the time, there was virtually no organization among health care facilities, and two major points contributed to this. The first was that the government had declared that nonprofit hospitals did not come under the labor laws that were coming into effect at the time. Second, because of the type of work that they do, healthcare givers are more vulnerable to exploitation. As Pearl Cormack, a nurses aid, is quoted in Upheaval in a Quiet Zone


“This is why you’re taken advantage of in the hospital. They realize that people going in to this, if they don’t like it, they’re not going to stay very long, but if you really like the work you will endure a lot of hardships in order to continue doing it… It’s not just another job, it’s far more than that.”[3] 


Many healthcare givers are passionate about their work and extremely dedicated to their patients. This commitment certainly contributed to the long delay in the organization of hospital workers.     

           Most attempts to organize hospital workers before 1199’s efforts centered on the white-collar workers and virtually ignored the semi and unskilled laborers. When 1199 began the attempt to organize hospital workers, they focused on these ranks, and had more success. Their first victory came at Montefiore Hospital, a hospital liberal in who they hired, yet still opposed to labor unions. 1199 managed to organize the hospital in December of 1958[4], though it took a strike before the hospital would recognize them. After Montefiore, 1199 exuberantly turned their attention to some 40 other hospitals in the area. They had a small, but motivated staff, and many of the workers in these other hospitals were contacting the union of their own initiative. Though the way certainly was not easy, by 1963 collective bargaining was the law in voluntary hospitals, at least in New York. The union had quadrupled its membership, and even more important, its membership was very diversified, including African-Americans, Hispanics, and Puerto Ricans. This led the union to become involved in civil rights movement as it applied in the workplace as well as in other areas.


Merger and Turmoil

          Things got tougher in the 1970’s, with the government making changes in healthcare reimbursement and other such areas. There was also a shift in how hospitals are financed and operated, and the workers seemed to be the ones destined to take the blows dealt out from small budgets and financial crisis. During this time, 1199 decided that the way to fight it was to join with SEIU. Unfortunately, during these talks in the late seventies, the president, Leon Davis, had a severe stroke, and the talks of merger changed as the question of succession threatened to tear the union apart. This internal struggle did what no hospital administration could do, it split the union in two, dividing it between the old New York base and the newer additions, and most notably down race lines.

One key person who violently opposed a merger with SEIU was Doris Turner. She had been promised a nomination from Davis for presidency of the New York district chapter of 1199, but grew suspicious that he would go back on his word. She feared that a merger would take the seat of power in 1199 away from New York, as well as from the blacks. At this time Davis also named and got his successor to the national presidency of 1199. In a unanimous vote: Henry Nicholas, a black, who was nominated form the floor by Turner. While Turner maintained in public that she loved Davis, tensions had been growing as early as 1978. Nicholas was formally elected in December of 1981, but that didn’t stop Turner’s fears that the merger was a racist and paternal ploy. She started rallying black supporters, and though Davis had to go through on his promise to nominate her for the district presidency the next year, due to a lack of a different candidate, he started doing everything in his power to push the merger through before April of 1982. This further tore the union down racial lines.

Turner was elected in April of 1982[5], but the union continued to unravel. There was nothing the union members could do, since the union depended on a strong leadership, and they were helpless as the leaders started to veer off course. As tension continued to mount, Turner went everywhere with an armed guard, certain that everyone was out to get her because she was black and female. She also used her power as president to purge her office. Many of the officers who supported the merger with SEIU were forced out or resigned under duress. By April of 1984, less than two years after taking office, ten district vice presidents and twelve of fourteen guild organizers had left. Turner claimed that they had deserted her administration.

There were shifts in how the union was run. It started focusing the lesser skilled workers, mostly black “homecare” workers and less on the mostly white RN’s. Racial pride was encouraged, as were bible readings among members and the invocation of prayer before contract talks. The New York district chapter of 1199 was turning away from labor and into a group that celebrated Black Nationalism, an ethnic clubhouse. The struggle between district and national came to a peak in 1983, when Turner brought a campaign to challenge Nicholas’s national presidency. She lost by one vote, and the battle raged on.

Finally, on July 1, 1984, District 1199 in New York was allowed to detach itself from the national union and regained its old position as Local 1199 of the RWDSU[6].

However, after a fruitless strike that was lost in no small part because of Turner’s attitude and unwillingness to compromise, combined with a loss of standing among both the members and the public, Local 1199 began a slow but irreversible decline. One of Turner’s supporters, sickened by what her own pride had done to the union, stuck back by giving a sworn statement of ballot tampering in the contested district officer election the previous spring. During this scandal, coupled with many charges of misuse of funds, a group formed a “Save our Union” campaign, and nominated Georgianna Johnson for the presidency, mainly because she was a black female. She beat Turner in the largest voter turnout in the history of the union, but by a year later proved to be unequal to the task, some suggesting that she had gotten in over her head. However, by this time she had come to view her position in terms of race and ideology, and decided to fight back, eventually taking the matter to court. Doris Turner returned to help Johnson, but in effect ruined any chance she had, for as one worker put it, “Doris Turner negotiating my next contract? No way.”[7] So, the core of people who still subscribed to the Leon Davis traditions had hung on to power, but at a huge cost. Voting turnout among members in all elections was down twenty-five percent, and the hospitals were almost deadlocked. Even more disturbing, the differences seemed to come from a deep racial split. From the outside, it seemed to be a victory, but a united hospital union still seemed very far away.

In November of 1987, there was referendum passed that set up a weak-president model, but it was far from a permanent or even a good answer.

          In spite of their troubles, in 1988 1199 continued its fight for the worker, working on a vigorous political movement for the recognition of home caregivers, and was also the only national union to break the AFL-CIO order and back Jesse Jackson for president. It finally joined SEIU in 19898, to make SEIU the largest health care union in the nation.



The group that is now SEIU 1199NW first became interested in 1199 in 1982, when nurses at Group Health in Redmond became dissatisfied with the representation they were receiving from WSNA (Washington State Nurses Association). WSNA also represents many administrators and academic positions, as well as nurses. At this time, the director of nursing was also on the bargaining unit, which seemed to be a conflict of interest. The focus at the time was on the entry level education for nurses, and not on issues that the nurses themselves deemed important.

Diane Sosne, a registered nurse in the psychiatric mental health department, felt that it would be in the nurses’ best interest if they started their own union. She contacted 1199 and they sent representative Glenn Goldstein, who proceeded to start a building committee. 

To begin with, the nurses had to decertify WSNA, and this could only be done at a certain time during the year. In preparation, the committee made a model and started collecting cards, which a person would sign if they were interested in starting/joining a new union. During this process, it was a very one-on-one, personal outreach program. Most of the recruitment was done by word of mouth. This took about 8 months, and in May of 1983, they had an election to see if they wanted to keep WSNA, start their own union, or be without representation. The vote for a new union was passed and it started as Group Heath Registered Nurses Union, but during the next year as they began creating by laws and holding elections, the decision came to affiliate with 1199. Then in 1989, they, as well as all 1199 chapters, joined with SEIU, which is now the largest health care union in the nation, at roughly 1.5 million members.


SEIU 1199NW Today

In the beginning SEIU 1199NW just represented RN’s. However, it was never the plan to stay with just nurses, and soon they began organizing other health care workers as well. Under the current model, SEIU 1199NW tries to do what is referred to as “wall to wall” organizing, in which every worker in a hospital organization is represented by SEIU 1199NW. They completely represent Stevens Hospital in King County, and at Yakima Providence, they represent everyone but the nurses.

 Until a few years ago, many nursing groups voted out WSNA and asked to be represented by SEIU 1199NW. Since that time, however, SEIU 1199NW has entered an agreement with WSNA to not participate in “raiding”. Now, if an organization wishes to vote out WSNA, they must be without representation for two years before asking to be represented by SEIU 1199NW. The two organizations now try to work together on common issues and concerns. It was never SEIU 1199NW’s goal to take over already represented workers, they are focused and dedicated to organizing the unorganized, though they never go into a situation without first being invited.


The Future

SEIU 1199NW right now represents about 10,000 workers and is in the process of merging with Local 6, increasing their number to 16,000.

One of the recent victories of SEIU 1199NW is the banning of mandatory overtime for nurses. This has become a big problem recently in light of the soon to be massive nursing shortage. Before this law, a hospital could charge a nurse with abandoning his or her patients if they left after their shift was over and there was no one to take their place. Now, a nurse can choose whether or not to work overtime with out fear of reprisals. 

One of the concerns that SEIU 1199NW has now is about some 20,000 home care workers, who right now are considered to be self-employed. This means they receive no benefits or social security, even though the government pays most of their wages, through Medicaid and Medicare. They are tying to get the government to recognize the home care workers as employees of the state, which would entitle them to all the benefits of a state employee. 

SEIU 1199 NW does, and will continue, to improve the quality of the health care industry by organizing workers and demanding better and safer working conditions for those workers who help keep our country healthy. 



Chris Barton, SEIU 1199NW, May 2002

Linda Canny, SEIU 1199, May 2002


© 2002 Rebecca Brown


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[1] Leon Fink and Brian Greenberg. Upheaval in a Quiet Zone, A History of Hospital Workers’ Union, Local 1199. 1989, University of Illinois Press. Page 22.

[2] Ibid. pp. 26

[3] Ibid. pp. 10

[4] Ibid. pp. 40-41

[5] Ibid. pp. 216

[6] Ibid. pp. 222

[7] Ibid. pp. 236




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These articles were written in Spring 2002. For problems or questions contact James Gregory.