Henry Nicholas on Social Justice

Henry Nicholas on Social Justice


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Here in Pennsylvania we have one of the largest militias. . . . They want to come

to North Philly and take Nicholas out. Because they believe that what I got is theirs

 and they want it back. Because the Americas don’t belong to me, it belongs to them.



Henry Nicholas on Social Justice in America 

A Black Commentator Interview


“Make sure that you’re not organizing solely to collect dues,” says Henry Nicholas, President of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees (NUHHCE) and an International Vice President of AFSCME, the giant public employees union. Nicholas, 65, has led NUHHCE since 1981, when it was known simply as Local 1199 AFL-CIO.

1199 set a modern-day standard for militant advocacy for social justice, within and beyond the union movement. NUHHCE and AFSCME currently represent 375,000 health care employees. Nicholas works ceaselessly to gather the nation’s health care workers under one, big union umbrella. He spoke to BC from his Philadelphia offices.


Black Commentator: Thirty-something years ago, during the Nixon era, many labor and civil rights activists believed we were on the verge of winning a Guaranteed National Minimum Income, something approaching European-style social democracy. What happened?

Nicholas: What happened to all of the social programs when the nation moved to the right? Our elected officials got amnesia and started buckling at the knees. And as a result, no real, new social policies have been implemented, including national health care insurance that is needed now more than ever.

They got amnesia, meaning they forgot what they should be advocating for. They got weak-kneed and started to foot-shuffling and knee-bending and all the things you start to do when you lack the courage to stand up for justice.

Black Commentator:  Does that go for Black members of Congress, too?

Nicholas: Our members are for the most part without the basic knowledge of the goings on of the political infrastructure in which they are supposed to be advocating for our rights. They’re not involved in articulating and drafting legislation. It is not where their interests lie. They’re talking about how to survive from day to day.

Black Commentator:  The South is the least organized, yet highest job growth, region of the nation. What are labor’s prospects?

Nicholas: There’s very little labor history in the South because the boll weevil Democrats and the boll weevil Republicans actually articulate the agenda for America. Jesse Jackson Jr., in his book A More Perfect Union, articulates the burden that we have in moving social policy in America, because those who have opposed social policy from the beginning are in charge, they politically dominate this country—those southern elected officials.

They’ve got laws that stop workers from organizing that are the worst laws in the universe. Bill Clinton couldn’t change that, because he was the President with a Republican House and Senate. To change it, you’ve got to say that you are pro-workers’ liberation, and they were not that. Even some of the Democrats, especially the southern Democrats, are to the right of the Republicans.

Black Commentator:  What kinds of resources are necessary to organize in the South?

Nicholas: The labor movement, in my opinion should be less concerned about the money they’ve invested in the stock market, and what the returns on that money are or should be. They should invest those dollars in organizing the unorganized. I’m not encouraged because all of us, as an institution need to be doing more and more. I’m out on the battlefield 17 hours a day, seven days a week, running from state to state like Paul Revere, bringing a message of organizing. And every labor leader in America should have that as his first and second and final concern: empowering the workers, building a more perfect union.

Black Commentator:  Both AFSCME and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are attempting to unionize low wage, largely immigrant workers in the service sector.

Nicholas: They are the apartheid workers of our generation in the Americas. The problem is, some unions see that as not being in the interest of their leadership protection. And so they’re not anxious to spend millions of dollars to help those people who are stuck at the bottom. They have not articulated that to the membership, as they are now. You’ve got to recognize that we have not changed social policy in the real sense since the beginning of time. Racism is still a major issue in the Americas. So, if you’re spending my money and I’m a professional, high-falutin’ worker… There are a lot of workers that don’t want to spend their money helping them. The same as it is when you talk about needing to raise taxes to advance social programs, the normal feeling is that I don’t want to pay taxes to help them. It’s that same debate when you talk about immigrant workers. Hispanics are just one of the groups. In California, we’re talking about ethnic groups that speak seven different languages.

Black Commentator:  For years, SEIU and AFSCME engaged in cutthroat competition to represent home health care workers in California. Now the two unions work hand in glove.

Nicholas: Those who articulate the agenda recognize that it is not about them, it is about empowering the workers. And when they put justice above safety and justice above pride, then they do and behave appropriately. That is what is evidently happening with SEIU and our union in dealing with the more than 200,000 home health care workers in that state. The leadership changed, and the people who are involved have a social conscience, and if you have a social conscience, that will be your guide.

We got lucky in California. We had a good, opportunistic, fair-minded governor in California [Gray Davis] that gave us legislation and the power to grow. It doesn’t just happen in the abstract. You’ve got to be driving that agenda.

Our union is leading the organizing efforts of the national [AFSCME]. But the kinds of resources that are needed are not being expended, to get the job done. The number one need for the American labor movement is to empower the suffering masses. And we have not been an aggressive voice by putting our dollars where our desires are.

Black Commentator:  Nicholas is disappointed with the progress of the Living Wage Movement, the national effort to join community, clergy and labor activists in common struggle toward specific goals, such as higher minimum wages and organizing poor workers.

Nicholas: There ain’t no such thing as a Living Wage Movement. It doesn’t exist. When do you see a preacher on a picket line? The people who are given the responsibility for carrying out the moral agenda for America are the churches and organized labor. And in most cases they are ducking for cover, hiding from reality, not assuming their rightful roles. And that role is to be upfront, leading. Ken Msemaji’s voice is the correct voice that is not heard on Sunday. [Msemaji is President of the United Domestic Workers of America, the San Diego-based, AFSCME-affiliated home health care union.] The churches are not inviting him, saying, “Come on down and let’s talk about that, you’ve got a good idea.” Even though they know he’s right.

We are not even a voice in the minority of the union movement. We are a voice in the wilderness, crying out for social justice. Ain’t nobody going to advance Henry Nicholas and Ken Msemaji’s ideology. They’re happy that we’re all in the same union together, so we won’t infect people outside of our own niche.

Black Commentator:  What about the young union leadership coming up?

Nicholas: Hell, they’re coming up but they’re not empowered. That’s just like coming out and having no place to go. You have to be in charge to have an impact on an institutional policy. You can’t have that from the outside.

Black Commentator:  Give us your assessment of the state of the social contract in America.

Nicholas: Hell, there has not been a social contract for the poor people in this country. The social contract was written by those who have not changed since the 1800s, and they believe that a social contract in America is not to spend $40,000 per student for education but, instead, to spend that kind of money to build more and bigger jails.

The evidence is, when Bush and his crowd, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft shut down social advocacy in America, America was silent on it. And when Bush said you’re either with me or against me, no one stood up and said, What do you mean by that? Does that mean you are impeding the social justice that we have achieved thus far?

Black Commentator:  The Bush administration has been making a big show of preparations to cope with the effects of biological and chemical attacks against the U.S. Have they asked for any input from the health care unions?

Nicholas: They ain’t talking to nobody in labor. My union represents the largest work force in America, AFSCME is the largest union within the AFL-CIO. And they ain’t talking to [AFSCME President Gerald W.] McEntee, because they say that we’re on the other side and that we had our chance when Clinton was in, and now it’s their chance, and they’re not concerned about what we want.

You gotta understand – you can’t have bread and bullets. You can’t be spending $1.8 billion a month looking for bin Laden when you need to raise your polling numbers, and talk about social programs. We have 44 million people out of health care [insurance] and that’s growing every day. There has to be money in the budget for dealing with even the small social programs. When the war starts you’ll die from either smallpox or all the other diseases, or you’ll spend the money looking for Saddam Hussein.

They haven’t consulted [AFL-CIO chief] John Sweeney either, and he’s in charge of the whole federation. And they’re not going to contact him.

Black Commentator:  What role have the media played in the battle for social justice?

Nicholas: They were part of the justification when Clarence Thomas and his group [on the U.S. Supreme Court] stole the American dream, that is, the people’s right to elect their own representatives. The media didn’t rise up and talk about how awful it was. They said it’s time to get in behind George Bush and they got right behind him.

They don’t deal with the major issues confronting the Americas. We are the number one jail-industrial-complex in the world, and the fastest growing part of the society is not education, not health care, but jails. There are not ongoing editorials about what we should do about our jail system. We are finding that there are hundreds of people who have been serving most of their adult lives in jail who are being let go because the jail system failed them. Justice in this system is not blind.

Black Commentator:  How has the political climate changed since September 11?

Nicholas: First of all, they’ve been laying off millions of workers since 9-11.

They changed the legal structure that permitted the government of the United State to lock people up and hold them without charging them. We were all asleep, the press and all, and said nothing about it. So, if you have a picket line, all they have to do is plant a provocateur and create a situation and lock everybody up and say you were part of a terrorist organization and keep you there until we take over all of the oil in the Middle East.

There are 44 million people without health care. There are millions of people in jail. Almost 900,000 Black men between 19 and 39 are in jail and there are no outcries. Some of the most bright and articulate minds in our movement are in jail. The government imposed a drug culture on our communities. Noriega worked for Bush. Bin Laden worked for Bush [Sr.] when he was at the CIA and when he was President. Saddam was one of the Bush’s CIA operatives. They knew where bin Laden’s money was because they used to put money in his bank account. They knew about all those holes in the mountains because they helped him build them. If they go after them, after they played a major role in their agenda, they’ll plant some heroin on me in two minutes and lock me up.

When Bush said you’re either with us or against us, people ran like hell and avoided us like we had the plague.

Black Commentator:  Nicholas says people are looking for terrorists in all the wrong places.

Nicholas: In every state of the union there is a big militia out there. The church hasn’t condemned them. The labor movement has not condemned them. The federal government has not condemned them. We have as many terrorists among our rightists as they have in those countries where bin Laden comes from. The guy who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma was not from bin Laden’s group. He was from our group. The kids that shot up those high schools didn’t train with bin Laden. They got their ideology from us. No one will talk about the militia.

Here in Pennsylvania we have one of the largest militias. Every Friday they get in the trucks with the guns and go up in the mountains and get ready to make war. Not making war on some foreign enemy. They’re not volunteering, telling Bush, I’ll go take Saddam out. They want to come to North Philly and take Nicholas out. Because they believe that what I got is theirs and they want it back. Because the Americas don’t belong to me, it belongs to them. That’s their position, it hasn’t changed since they passed the three-fifths compromise.

Black Commentator:  Nicholas on his own retirement:

Nicholas: I’ve been doing this since 1961, non-stop, seven days a week, 17 hours a day. I’ll never stop. Too many people go to bed hungry every night.

I think its fair to say that we’ve made some progress, that Black folks are the people who are organizing into unions faster than any other ethnic group. But our numbers are being diminished because too many of us are in prison already. Our numbers are not growing any faster in the labor movement than they are growing in the industrial-jail-complex, which is a crisis in itself. No one wants to talk about that crisis.

Black Commentator:  Where should labor place its priorities?

Nicholas: The first priority is jobs, the second is education, and health care. Those are the number one issues. And then there has to be a moratorium on the death penalty.

You have to keep on organizing and hope that you have the resources to do that well. And make sure that you’re not organizing solely to collect dues. That has to be part of the method that you bring to the workers of America. We need to continue to educate and advocate for justice.

Source: Black Commentator Issue Number 14 – October 17, 2002

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President, National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees since 1981; elected International Vice President in 1989. Began career as health care worker in New York City, and led organizing campaigns that built Local 1199 into a major labor organization. Member of numerous boards in areas of rights, job training, and health care. AFSCME

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Historical Background of Local 1199

District 1199C is an affiliate of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, AFSCME, AFL-CIO. The roots of the National Union go back to June 7, 1932, when a group of pharmacists founded Pharmacists Union of Greater New York. Oscar Lerner was the first President and Leon Davis was Vice President and organizer.

Years of struggle followed the birth of the new Union, as was the case of most Unions in the Depression years. The first strike occurred in 1933 against Galin Pharmacy and involved only one worker. This clearly indicated the Union’s early commitment to the motto “AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL.” The Union grew and the giant Whelan Drugstore chain was organized after four strikes. In 1936, the Pharmacists Union joined the American Federation of Labor (AF of L) and acquired the name, Local 1199.

1199’s commitment to the civil rights movement became clearly evident in 1936, the year of the Harlem strike. That strike lasted seven bitter winter weeks and was waged for the right of African-Americans to work as pharmacists in Harlem drug stores. The Union won. This commitment was strengthened in 1954 when the Union gave financial aid, through Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. King called 1199 “my favorite union,” and after his death, his widow, the late Coretta Scott King, carried on his association with the Union as an honorary and active chair of the National Union.

In 1958, Leon Davis, then President of Local 1199, met with Elliot Godoff, a pioneer hospital organizer. A proposal to organize hospital workers was given to the Drug Store Union. Local 1199 voted to commit their Union’s money to help the hospital workers win their Union rights. Hospital workers were forgotten people: There was no minimum wage law, no unemployment insurance, no disability benefits, no collective-bargaining rights and virtually no job protection. It was, in fact, illegal for hospital workers to join a Union. Montefiore was the first hospital to be organized by Local 1199 in 1958.

Striking for recognition for Hospital workers

However, other hospitals stood firm against the Union and on May 8, 1959, 3,500 workers from seven hospitals went out on a strike which was to last 46 days. A partial victory was won, but still no Union representation.

In 1962, another bitter struggle took place. The workers struck Beth El Hospital in Brooklyn for 56 days. Leon Davis was jailed for 30 days for refusing a court order to call off the strike. A settlement was finally reached when Nelson Rockerfeller, then Governor of New York, made a public commitment to secure the passage of a law giving collective-bargaining rights to hospital workers.

The Union expanded rapidly. Hospital workers joined in increasing numbers and formed the Hospital Division of 1199. This Division included all hospital service and maintenance workers, as well as most nursing home workers. Clerical, technical and professional workers also sought the Union out and in 1964 the Guild Division was formed to meet their particular needs. Later, in the next decade, an RN Division was formed.

The Beginning of the National Union

In December of 1969, a conference was held to found the 1199 National Organizing Committee for the express purpose of organizing health care workers throughout the country. The first major national organizing event came prior to this in March of 1969. Workers in the state and county hospitals in Charleston, South Carolina, went out on strike for 113 days in protest againt racial discrimination in pay, low wages, and the firing of 12 workers. The National Guard was called out in full force and arrests, beating and teargassing of workers were commonplace. In the end, tactics of nonviolence, boycott of businesses and schools, and pressure from leaders in the labor movement and government prevailed, and a settlement was reached.

The Beginnings of District 1199C

In Philadelphia, nursing home workers at Inglis House, Philadelphia Geriatric Center, Workmen’s Circle Home, and hospital workers at Hahneman, Metropolitan, Children’s and Wills Eye Hospitals were among the first to organize and win Union contracts through local 1199C as the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Committee was then called. These early (and subsequent) victories were led by Henry Nicholas. He is now president of the National Union.

All of the successes of the District were tragically darkened on August 28, 1972, when Norman Rayford, an organizer with District 1199C, was slain by a guard at Metropolitan Hospital during a strike. In his memory, the National Union dedicates itself to the cause of bringing hope and change to health care workers everywhere.

The National Union is Created

In November of 1973, the National Organization was formally established at its first Constitutional Convention and renamed the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees. The convention also established autonomous districts of which District 1199C in Philadelphia is one. At that convention, LEON DAVIS was elected as the first president of the new National Union; he was succeeded as president by HENRY NICHOLAS in December of 1981.

In October 1984, the National Union received a direct charter from the AFL-CIO and became the only health care union with such a charter. Prior to that date, the National Union had been affiliated with the AFL-CIO through the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU); the members of the New York District remained with the RWDSU and are no longer affiliated with the National Union.

As an affiliate of the National Union, District 1199C experienced rapid growth under the leadership of its President, HENRY NICHOLAS. Since it began in 1973, it has grown to its present level of 13,000 members. 1199C now represents workers in all fields in the major health institutions of Philadelphia and its environs, and its members have made tremendous gains in wages, benefits, and working conditions.

AFSCME Affiliation

In 1989, in an effort to increase its political clout and with a commitment to organize the unorganized, the National Union affiliated with the 1.2 million members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). With more than 300,000 health care members, AFSCME continues to be the fastest growing union in America, of which we are proud to be a part.

The enormous strides made by our Union have come about through the unity of our membership. In these days of division and discord in our country, the members of our Union have demonstrated that working people, differing in race, religion and political beliefs, can respect each other and work together for the benefit of all. NUHHCE

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posted 24 July 2008




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