Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
John Hennen is a historian and professor emeritus at Morehead State University. His book A Union for Appalachian Healthcare Workers: The Radical Roots and Hard Fights of Local 1199, released in November, traces the history of a leftist labor union formed in New York City as it established and maintained a foothold in the Appalachian regions of West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky throughout the late 20th century. Hennen’s book documents a striking alliance between diverse, urban care workers and their white rural counterparts.
Enjoy our conversation about what 1199 means for essential workers today.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: How did you become interested in 1199? Growing up in Huntington, were you aware of its presence or did your interest come out of more academic pursuits?
John Hennen: My early interest in 1199 was not academic; rather it was because of my involvement in an activist group at Marshall University called Marshall Action for Peaceful Solutions (MAPS). MAPS formed a working alliance with 1199 on several issues, including the West Virginia Nuclear Freeze campaign, workers’ and veterans’ rights, and opposition to Reagan’s policies in Central America. In 1986 I was doing an oral history project about the Marshall chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society. For that project I interviewed Tom Woodruff, who in 1986 was an officer in the West Virginia/Ohio/Kentucky district of Local 1199. Woodruff had been part of the Students for Democratic Society at Marshall, and became an 1199 organizer in Huntington during the 1974-1975 Cabell-Huntington campaign. My interest in the history of the union in Appalachia grew out of that period, but I didn’t do any serious research on the union until much later, around 1997. Over the years I wrote a few journal articles and did a lot of conferences and public presentations on 1199, and finally started writing the book in the summer of 2019.
DY: In the book, you chose to situate the beginnings of 1199 in Appalachia in the broader American civil unrest of the 60s—why is the context of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement so important to the story you’re trying to tell?
JH: From my earliest awareness of Local 1199, I learned that the union’s history in the Civil Rights and antiwar movements was a point of pride with the organizers and membership of the West Virginia/Ohio/Kentucky district. The original 1199 district in New York City had a deep commitment to racial and economic justice and, in 1965, became the first American union to speak out forcefully against the war in Vietnam. When 1199 began to organize outside New York City in 1969, it attracted many young organizers who had been involved in antiwar, civil rights, and antipoverty work. Frustrated by the stand-pat conservatism of most American unions, they were attracted to 1199’s militant activism and commitment to a decent standard of living for workers—something that had been ignored by other unions. My interest in the history of labor radicalism in the 1930s, when 1199 was founded by Belarusian immigrant Leon Davis in New York, together with my interest in the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, merged perfectly with my personal experiences with Local 1199 in the 1980s. The placing of Local 1199 within the broad history of 20th-Century social and political activism seemed natural.
DY: The timeline of 1199 seems somewhat unlikely. As healthcare became a crucial industry in the coalfields, how did the union fight against the austere politics created by deindustrialization and out-migration?
JH: Early on in 1199’s Appalachian history, a major question was whether an urban-based union working exclusively with poor Black, Puerto Rican, and Haitian workers (mostly women) would be able to build a “movement” union among poor rural and small-town whites in communities being hollowed out by deindustrialization. Local 1199 put into practice that the first principle of a union, to provide a better standard of living to workers, could only be sustained if the membership was educated to both take control of their work lives and internalize a deep commitment to social and economic justice for others. Workers learned how to identify and resist the strategies used by “union avoidance” specialists (union busters) hired by hospitals and nursing homes, how to devise, articulate, and administer the details of collective bargaining, and educate new members on the “idea of 1199.” The survival of Local 1199 in the 1980s, a decade of profound dislocation in Appalachia and of the rapid consolidation of the healthcare industry, was difficult, tenuous, and not without setbacks. The structural realities of hospital mergers, in fact, was the major factor in the Appalachian district’s decision to abandon some of its proud self-identity as a small, militant, fighting union in favor of merging itself with a much larger health-care union, the Service Employees International Union, in 1989.
DY: I’d like to pose one of your own questions back to you. At the beginning of the book you ask “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?” What have two years of Covid-19 and your deep dive into the Healthcare and Social Service Union taught you about the answer to this question?
JH: I am not optimistic about such a structural realignment based on what I see so far, although our system of corporate and wealthy elite domination of American life will bend a little. For example, at least for the next few years, it appears that workers will have more options as to what kind of work they will go into and what wages they are willing and able to accept. That is just about the only positive outcome of the Covid crisis. The voters in many states have mobilized to force their legislatures to enact more fair minimum wage laws. Incomes among the lowest wage workers are rising fast enough to keep ahead of the current wave of inflation. And workers have become more assertive about safer workplaces in which they have some control over shift scheduling and wages. Some workers in the ”essential” service industries are looking closely at unionization.
That is all to the good. But I have not seen any evidence of structural changes, for example, a system of fair taxation and comprehensive social welfare in the form of paid leave, single-payer health insurance rather than more privatized extortion, publicly subsidized child care, guaranteed income, etc. Until we revolutionize a system that allows about ½ of 1% of the population to have as much wealth as the bottom 50%, and to do little to protect the earth, optimism is not justified. Such a top-heavy structure will inevitably collapse, with who knows what consequences?
So, at this moment I am not optimistic about the near future. But I am “hopeful” for the long term. Does that make sense? One of my favorite aphorisms, one which I use in the book, is from the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, in The Irony of American History (1952). “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime,” he said. “Therefore, we must be saved by hope.” Things may get a little better materially for people, but I doubt if anyone of my age (I was born in 1951) will live to see the structural realignments needed for a just America. But that’s no excuse for copping out. A vital, democratic labor movement is one of the most important features of a just society, and ours is showing signs of life. And a lot of young and not-so-young folks are ready to “begin the world over again” (Thomas Paine, 1776). So, there is some hope for down the road.
DY: What’s the state of 1199 today?
JH: In the mid-1980s, the original New York district of Local 1199 broke off from the national union, taking about 70,000 of the total membership of 140,000. Faced with the possibility of being completely destroyed by the combined power of the industry’s consolidation, most of the regional districts of Local 1199 voted to merge with the SEIU in 1989. Almost instantly, the West Virginia/ Kentucky/Ohio district, with about 14,000 members at that time, became part of a powerful and growing international union of about 850,000 members, including over 300,000 health care workers. The district became known as SEIU District 1199WV/KY/OH. Today the SEIU has about 2 million members, including 1.1 million members in SEIU Healthcare.
The Appalachian region of Local 1199 featured in this book now has about 10,000 members; the entire SEIU District 1199WV/KY/OH has over 30,000. The district carries on many active organizing and contract renewal campaigns in hospitals, nursing homes, community health centers, and state agencies.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.