Henry Nicholas on Social Justice
"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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
Nicholas: First of all, they've been laying
off millions of workers since 9-11.
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.
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
said you're either with us or against us, people
ran like hell and avoided us like we had the
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.
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.
Issue Number 14 - October 17,
* * *
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.
* * *
Background of Local 1199
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.
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.
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
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
for recognition for Hospital workers
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
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
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.
Beginning of the National Union
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.
Beginnings of District 1199C
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.
National Union is Created
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* * *
* * * * *
Salvage the Bones
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake.
She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—
* * * * *
The New Jim Crow
Mass Incarceration in the Age of
By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the
rosy picture of race embodied in Barack
Obama's political success and Oprah
Winfrey's financial success, legal
scholar Alexander argues vigorously and
persuasively that [w]e have not ended
racial caste in America; we have merely
redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial
segregation has been replaced by mass
incarceration as a system of social
control (More African Americans are
under correctional control today... than
were enslaved in 1850). Alexander
reviews American racial history from the
colonies to the Clinton administration,
delineating its transformation into the
war on drugs. She offers an acute
analysis of the effect of this mass
incarceration upon former inmates who
will be discriminated against, legally,
for the rest of their lives, denied
employment, housing, education, and
Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action
may blur our vision of injustice: most
Americans know and don't know the truth
about mass incarceration—but her
carefully researched, deeply engaging,
and thoroughly readable book should
* * *
A Matter Of Law: A Memoir Of Struggle In The Cause Of Equal Rights
By Robert L. Carter and Foreword by John Hope Franklin
Robert Lee Carter (March 11, 1917 – January 3, 2012) insisted on using the research of the psychologist Kenneth B. Clark to attack segregated schools, a daring courtroom tactic in the eyes of some civil rights lawyers. Experiments by Mr. Clark and his wife, Mamie, showed that black children suffered in their learning and development by being segregated. Mr. Clark’s testimony proved crucial in persuading the court to act, Mr. Carter wrote in a 2004 book, “A Matter of Law: A Memoir of Struggle in the Cause of Equal Rights.” As chief deputy to the imposing Mr. Marshall, who was to become the first black Supreme Court justice, Mr. Carter labored for years in his shadow. In the privacy of legal conferences, Mr. Carter was seen as the house radical, always urging his colleagues to push legal and constitutional positions to the limits.
He recalled that Mr. Marshall had encouraged him
to play the gadfly: “I was younger and more
radical than many of the people Thurgood would have in, I guess. But he’d never let them shut me up.” Robert Lee Carter was born in Caryville, in the Florida Panhandle
. . . . —NYTimes / Oral History Archive
* * * * *
The White Masters
of the World
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
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Negro Digest / Black World
Browse all issues
* * *
Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /
George Jackson /
* * * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding
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posted 24 July 2008