Fifty years ago, an untrained woman's starting salary in a New York hospital was 90 cents an hour. She had no legal right to join a union or even to receive a minimum wage. On May 8, 1959, Local 1199, which began as a small union of pharmacy workers, organized a strike against Mount Sinai Hospital, creating a new beginning for New York's hospital and nursing home workers. Gloria Arana, a laundry worker, strike leader and native of Puerto Rico, called it "a beautiful day" when she saw Madison Avenue crowded with picketing workers. After a 46-day strike, 1199 achieved a partial victory and the union quickly grew throughout New York City's 81 voluntary hospitals. The union was finally recognized only after another strike and changes to the state's labor laws in 1962.
Six years later, 40,000 workers belonged to 1199 and the minimum wage at the city's hospitals had tripled to $100 per week. Seeing itself as part of the civil rights movement, the union fought not only for higher pay, but also for the dignity of hospital workers. In 1989, new president Dennis Rivera began to rebuild a divided Local 1199's 78,000 members into a powerful political force. Today, 1199 S.E.I.U. (a Service Employees International Union local joined forces with 1199) and its president, George Gresham, represent more than 300,000 workers in New York, Washington DC, Maryland and Massachusetts. Rivera is now chairman of 1199's parent, S.E.I.U. Health Care.
Health care is one of the fastest growing sectors of the union movement. Membership has increased to 962,000 in almost every area of the health care industry. These workers have sought higher wages, greater job security and respect on the job as the health care economy undergoes rapid change, due to new technology and treatment, privatization and the changes arising from President Obama's health care legislation.