The labor history of Appalachia’s essential workers: Previewing John Hennen’s new book

The union of hospital workers usually referred to as the 1199 sits at the intersection of three of the most important topics in US history: organized labor, health care, and civil rights. John Hennen’s A Union for Appalachian Healthcare Workers, coming November 1 from West Virginia University Press, explores the union’s history in Appalachia, a region that is generally associated with extractive industries but has seen health care grow as a share of the overall economy. We’re pleased to share an excerpt from the book’s introduction.

The West Virginia teachers’ strike in 2018 briefly focused attention on the history of labor-management conflict in the state. A cross-section of mainstream and progressive media drew a crooked line to the teachers’ rebellion from earlier battles between coal operators and miners, especially the Mine Wars of 1913–1921. This attention to a significant part of the state’s working-class history was welcome and a long time coming. Some academic and independent historians have studied and written that history for decades, but the contributions of regular working people are still too often airbrushed out of the standard narratives of American history. As I write these words, the world is grappling with how to survive the shocks of the coronavirus pandemic. The curious phrase “essential workers,” although it has been around for a while, has now become part of our daily vocabulary. It reflects an awareness, finally, that the workers who feed us, protect us, clean up after us, drive us around, deliver our stuff, teach our children, and care for the old, the sick, and the injured are not just assistant people. They are “essential.” Will our appreciation for essential workers inspire a structural realignment in America’s distribution of wealth? Or is it just a transitory thing, which soon enough will fade back into the old reality, that the more essential the work, the less the pay?

This book tells the story of how some essential workers in Appalachia built a healthcare workers’ union, usually referred to as “1199,” between 1969 and 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 drugstore 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 embodied 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 healthcare workers into a single force for racial, social, and economic justice. That was when 1199 came to Appalachia.

Today SEIU 1199WV/KY/OH includes about thirty-one thousand members within its jurisdiction, divided into two regions. Region I locals are in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and eleven counties in southern Ohio. Most of Region I’s membership is now part of an entity called WV/KY Healthcare, with nine thousand members.

I first became aware of 1199 (in conversation that was the usual way of identifying 1199WV/KY/OH) in 1985, when I was a “nontraditional” (i.e., “older”) graduate student at Marshall University. During a bitter UMWA strike against Massey Energy in the spring of 1985, I and a few other students joined an 1199 protest against an appearance by CEO E. Morgan Massey at a local country club. Following this episode, the staff at the union’s building on Eighth Avenue in Huntington invited our all-purpose antiwar and social justice organization to print up our flyers on their copier. In exchange they gave us union buttons to wear and urged us to come out for future union rallies and protests. The union also cosponsored many of our events, such as protests and teach-ins about Reagan’s Central American policy, lobbying trips to Washington for annual April Actions, protests to cuts in veterans’ benefits, rallies for laid-off workers, Nuclear Freeze panel discussions, and the like. Those experiences catalyzed my growing interest in the history, structure, and place in American society of organized labor. I even managed to get myself hired as an organizer for 1199 in 1986 but almost immediately realized I had neither the discipline nor the drive that a labor organizer needs. I retreated to a PhD program, and it worked out okay.

That background should be sufficient to establish that I am not neutral in my opinions about the old 1199, or the labor movement in general, then or now. Objectivity demands fairness, not neutrality, so throughout this book, I have done my best to be fair. Readers may question my interpretation of things, but they are based on critical and logical consideration of a range of evidence. Any factual errors or unsupported conclusions are on me, of course, and no one else.

Professor Phil Carter, director of the social work program at Marshall University for many years, suggested a long time ago that I work on a book about Dan Stewart. Stewart, as documented here, was one of the key individuals in the history of 1199/WV/KY/OH. When Stewart died in 1997, Phil’s students, who sponsored an annual conference on community organizing, began calling it the Dan Stewart Tri-State Organizing Conference. I was invited to speak in 1998, and I met two of Stewart’s longtime friends, Frank Helvey and Roger Adkins, both of whom later helped me in my research. It was at that 1998 meeting that Phil, who was an ally of Stewart in the Huntington civil rights movement and who later did trainings for 1199WV/KY/OH, prodded me to do a biography of Dan. That isn’t quite what this book turned out to be, but that meeting got me started, and I am happy that it did.

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