Our History


Founding NUHHCE

The roots of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees/AFSCME/AFL-CIO 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.


The First Strike

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.


The birth of the Local 1199

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.


Dr. King’s Favorite Union

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.


First Local 1199 Unionized Hospital

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.


Beth El Hospital Strike

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 Rockefeller, then Governor of New York, made a public commitment to secure the passage of a law giving collective-bargaining rights to hospital workers.


Hospital Division of 1199

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 against 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 tear-gassing of workers were commonplace. In the end, tactics of nonviolence, the 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 healthcare 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.


Direct Charter From the AFL-CIO

In October 1984, the National Union received a direct charter from the AFL-CIO and became the only healthcare 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.