‘A Union for Appalachian Healthcare Workers’: W.Va. Author’s New Book Recounts History Amid Resurgence of Labor Organizing

Photo: Courtesy of Huntington Herald Dispatch Archives, Illustration: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia
Photo: Courtesy of Huntington Herald Dispatch Archives, Illustration: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

In his new book “A Union for Appalachian Healthcare Workers: The Radical Roots and Hard Fights of Local 1199,” John Hennen tells the story of a union founded in New York City that worked its way into Appalachian communities. 

Hennen, a Morehead State University emeritus professor of history, says he began his research for the book three decades ago, releasing it this month with West Virginia University Press. It’s the exploration of a union that has been “at the intersection of three of the most important topics in US history: organized labor, health care, and civil rights,” according to the publisher.

From the book’s introduction:

This book tells the story of how some essential workers in Appalachia built a health care workers’ union, usually referred to as “1199,” between 1969-1989. That union had a history dating back to the early 1930s, where the original New York City Local 1199 was founded by a Russian immigrant with radical ideas. His name was Leon Davis. His radicalism was defined in part because of his political affiliation. In the early 1930s, when he began organizing pharmacists and drug store workers, he was a Communist, active in the Trade Union Unity League. But he was also radical in the greater sense, in that he believed that marginalized workers in the hospital industry – blacks, Puerto Ricans, poor whites, women – were human beings who should be recognized, respected, and paid a decent wage. They were pharmacists, nurses, nurse assistants, janitors, housekeepers, laundry workers, maintenance workers, cooks, and dishwashers. Davis believed these workers were entitled to a dignified and comfortable life as much as anyone else. That was a radical notion. No other unions in the 1950s, when 1199 began organizing hospital workers, wanted much to do with them.

Over time, 1199’s immersion in the Civil Rights Movement (the union adopted the slogan “Union Power, Soul Power”) and its highly visible mobilizing tactics, began to earn this small union a reputation among voiceless workers outside of New York City. It also caught the attention of activists who believed the labor movement could be a powerful force for social and economic justice, but were disappointed by the Cold War conservatism and sluggishness of many unions. When Local 1199 in New York publicly announced its opposition to the war in Vietnam, it piqued the interest of critics of the war, especially young campus activists. Many of them concluded that 1199 represented the progressive, democratic values that could reinvigorate a dormant labor movement. In 1969, at the urging of Coretta Scott King, Leon Davis and his allies began to expand 1199 beyond the borders of New York, with a dream to unify all health care workers into a single force for racial, social, and economic justice. That was when 1199 came to Appalachia.

As the union moved into majority white Appalachia, Hennen writes, its identity as a minority rights union shifted, but remained a “moral force,” fighting for human dignity and respect for workers. 

“The union must appeal to workers on the basis of respect as a human right,” Hennen writes. “Once workers believed that the union was the means to securing that human right, they could be inoculated from any race-baiting or ‘outsider’ language from management.” 

Hennen discussed the book with 100 Days’ health correspondent Taylor Sisk.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Taylor Sisk: Please tell us about the impetus for this book.

John Hennen: I went back to school to work on a master’s degree at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, in 1984, and I got involved with some local anti-war, pro-environmental activist folks in an organization that was called MAPS, Marshall Action for Peaceful Solutions. We had several programs that Local 1199 helped sponsor. 

The union has a long history, dating all the way back to the 1930s, as a pro-civil rights, social justice union. They had a lot of success because they were willing to take to the streets.

Local 1199 managed to gain some pretty remarkable benefits for low-wage workers in New York City and was also the first union in the country to vocally oppose the war in Vietnam.

TS: You write about the support Local 1199 received from the United Mine Workers. Can you tell us more about that?

JH: In 1972 at the Clinch Valley Clinic Hospital in Richlands, Virginia, the 1199 supporters had to strike in order to get the hospital to even sit down and talk with them. They formed the union, but then they had to gain legitimacy of some kind with the management, and in a right-to-work state like Virginia, of course, that’s not easy to do. But they struck to get recognition from the hospital, or to at least get the hospital to bargain with them. 

The United Mine Workers lent support to this strike. They came out on the picket line several times with the striking workers, and also, my understanding is that [UMW president] Arnold Miller sent a veiled threat to the hospital, basically saying, “Look, we send people to your hospital when they can’t get to the UMW hospitals. We spend a lot of money in Richlands, Virginia, where you guys are located. We’ll just pull all that out of here.” And that was one of the many factors that finally broke through the rock-ribbed resistance of the management to even deal with these workers. Unfortunately, within a few years the hospital management succeeded in busting the union at Clinch Valley.

My book focuses on West Virginia and the Appalachian portions of eastern Kentucky and southern Ohio. In general, the labor movement throughout the region, particularly the UMW, was very supportive of what 1199 was trying to do. Because they knew the real bread-and-butter unionism of the United Mine Workers was not inconsistent with the pragmatic goals of 1199 to achieve rank-and-file progress and better wages, along with the union’s emphasis on social justice.

Now, sometimes the politics of 1199 diverged from some of the more conservative politics of the other unions. But 1199, in whatever community they were in, attempted to build bridges with the local union movement. In West Virginia, in the 1960s and early 1970s, the labor movement was still politically very strong. And if 1199 could build alliances with the other local unions, that helped them put pressure on their management to deal with them.

TS: Are you optimistic about the future of organized labor in Appalachia?

JH: When I began doing the research for this book, way back in the late ’90s, I was not optimistic about the future of organized labor. When the health care industry began to consolidate with a vengeance in the 1980s, the West Virginia/Kentucky/Ohio district, which was mighty but small in numbers, was in danger of being overwhelmed. The Service Employees International Union was working hard to organize health care workers throughout the country, and after some debate, the West Virginia/Kentucky/Ohio region of 1199 voted in 1989 to support a merger with SEIU.

Some of the members felt like, “Well, you know, we lost something. The old 1199 is gone, but we also gained some very powerful allies to help bring us into the future.” And they have had some impressive victories in West Virginia just in the last couple of years.

So, I’m really much more optimistic at this point with the general revitalization of the labor movement.

TS: What would you like readers to take away from your book?

JH: I’d like for folks to know that there have been struggles to unionize in West Virginia and Appalachia in a number of industries, including health care, even in the recent hard times for organized labor. The 1199ers had to go through these hard battles to get union recognition and to keep their union through very difficult times.

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