Fifty years ago, on this day in 1965, District 1199 Health Care Workers became the first labor union in the United States to formally oppose the Vietnam War. This preceded by almost two months the first national March on Washington against the war in April, organized by Students for a Democratic Society.
1199 is a local union now of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), but was at that time under the auspices of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). With a membership of 360,000 it claims to be the largest local union in the world.
Local 1199 was founded in 1932 as a local of the Drug, Hospital, and Health Care Employees Union by Leon J. Davis to organize pharmacists in New York City. The local also included pharmacy clerks and “soda jerks.” The union led pioneering demonstrations and strikes against racial segregation and racially discriminatory hiring in Harlem and elsewhere in New York City during the 1930s.
The House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Local 1199’s leadership in 1948 for “Communist infiltration.” Expelled from the CIO in the late 1940s, 1199 found shelter with RWDSU.
Local 1199 first successfully organized nonprofessional hospital workers in 1958, mobilizing the industry’s heavily Black and Puerto Rican workforce. A 1959 strike against seven large private hospitals in New York City involved about 3500 hospital workers and lasted 46 days, leading eventually to collective bargaining rights under the state’s labor relations act. In 1965 Local 1199 began representing workers throughout New York State, and within a few years had begun to organize nurses.
Martin Luther King, Jr., who by the mid-1960s had already begun linking the civil rights struggle at home with U.S. imperial policy in Vietnam and elsewhere, famously described 1199 as “my favorite union.” His widow Coretta Scott King became the honorary chair of 1199’s organizing campaigns as it sought to expand outside of New York City beginning in the late 1960s.
District 1199’s declared opposition to the Vietnam War can be traced to its historically progressive leadership since the union’s beginnings. With its growth into one of the foremost unions comprising a majority membership of people of color from the 1960s on, it became a powerful union voice against war, and for the redirection of U.S. resources toward peaceful, domestic purposes. As much as pro-war politicians and the corporate media tried to drive a wedge between student activists and blue-collar workers, District 1199’s position on the war proved that the labor movement was capable of seeing through government propaganda. In time, other unions would follow in opposing the war.
On May 7, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford formally declared an end to the “Vietnam era.”
Photo: Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at 1199.