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Interpreting the Evidence

Drug & Hospital Employee Union, Local 1199, End Job Bias in New York City Building Trades, 1963

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Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
Press release from the Drug & Hospital Employee Union, Local 1199, opposing employment discrimination in the New York City building trades, August 7, 1963.
Historical Context
Since the protest years of the 1960s, big East Coast demonstrations have usually included a spirited contingent from Local 1199, the National Health Care Workers Union. That presence has always been heartening, because it seems to prove that it is possible to build a trade union that

- is not afraid of radicalism
- organizes thousands from the Black and Hispanic lower class, and
- seeks to link its fortunes to the social movements for civil rights, peace, and reproductive freedom

In the book "Upheaval in the Quiet Zone," historians Leon Fink and Brian Greenberg describe Local 1199 (originally known as the Drug, Hospital, and Health Care Employees Union District 1199) as a labor union founded by Leon J. Davis for pharmacists in New York City in 1932. While the union was composed of left-wing, predominantly Jewish pharmacists, it organized all workers in drugstores on an industrial basis, including pharmacists, clerks, and so-called “soda jerks.” During the 1930s, the union pioneered pickets and strikes against racial segregation and racially discriminatory hiring in Harlem and elsewhere in New York City.

Since 1199 was a “left-led” union, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated its activities in 1948 for communist “infiltration.”  At the time, 1199 was a tiny local; however, during the expulsions of large left-led unions from the CIO in the 1940s, 1199 eventually found shelter under the auspices of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). In the late 1950s, the drugstore-based union launched large-scale organizing drives at hospitals in New York, mobilizing a heavily Black and Puerto Rican workforce in the first flush of the post-war Civil Rights Movement.   Martin Luther King described 1199 as “my favorite union,” and his widow, Coretta Scott King, became the honorary chair of 1199’s organizing campaigns as it sought to expand outside of New York City in the late 1960s.

The union’s first campaign outside of the city was the formation of District 1199B in Columbia, South Carolina in 1969. Although the strike in Columbia never led to a contract, the union was successful in creating new 1199 districts in upstate New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia and elsewhere in Pennsylvania, as well as in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio.

Serious faction fights broke out within the flagship New York City local and among other 1199 locals after the retirement of the union's original leadership. The union eventually left the RWDSU to form the short-lived National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees during the 1980s, but its constituent locals soon sought mergers with other unions. Most 1199 locals joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), with 1199C in Philadelphia being the largest local to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The large flagship New York City local remained independent until it joined SEIU in 1998.
Essential Question
Why do communities discriminate against immigrants?
Check for Understanding
Identify the main idea of this document and explain why companies would discriminate against these groups.
Historical Challenges
Research the political and economic achievements of Local 1199 in New York City and the controversial role of Dennis Rivera as its union leader.
Find out more about the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. How important do you think it was for labor organizations to support the Civil Rights Movement?
Interdisciplinary Connections
Math: Using the statistics in this press release, figure out how many of the local’s hospital members were African American or Puerto Rican in 1963.
English Language Arts: Write a press release from your school on an issue you would like to see covered in the newspapers.
Art: Create a protest poster that could be used at a rally concerning this issue.