The roots of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, AFSCME, AFL-CIO go back to June 7, 1932, when a group of pharmacists founded the Pharmacists Union of Greater New York, which later acquired the name 1199. It was in 1958, when Leon Davis, then President of Local 1199 and Elliot Godoff, a pioneer hospital organizer, gave a proposal to organize hospital workers to the Drug Store Union.
Hospital workers were forgotten people: There was no minimum wage law, no unemployment insurance, no disability benefits, no collective-bargaining rights and virtually no job protection. It was, in fact, illegal for hospital workers to join a Union. Local 1199 voted to commit their Union’s money to help the hospital workers win their Union rights, and in 1958, Montefiore Medical Center was the first hospital organized by Local 1199. The organizing of hospital workers spread around the country, but most of all to the workers of what is now District 1199NM.
In the summer of 1974, poor working conditions at St Vincent hospital in Santa Fe incited a group of nurses to organize a nurses club. This group of nurses’ voices has evolved into an influential union whose voice now resounds throughout the Rio Grande Valley and New Mexico. District 1199NM has become an institution that provides for unity, camaraderie, and most of all social action.
In 1974 a group of RNs, lead by Billie Rose and Annette “Pete” Kingsbury met everyday at lunch to discuss how bad the working conditions at St. Vincent had become. These nurses decided to have a meeting to organize a RN club in an attempt to develop policies that would improve patient care at St. Vincent Hospital.
Amongst issues that concerned patient care, the nurses had complaints about the working conditions. Conditions such as: no weekends off unless you had worked 14 consecutive days, no paid maternity leave, no wage increase for tenure or experience, poor shift differentials, and lack of notice in schedule postings and changes. Overall the working conditions had left the nurses feeling overworked and unable to provide the best standard of patient care.
Meanwhile the Taft-Hartley Act of 1974 had been signed. This new legislation gave nurses the right to organize and collectively bargain around the country. In an attempt to take full advantage of the new legislation Billie Rose had gathered addresses in order to organize her co-workers. She was accused of using her position as nurse supervisor to collect hospital information, and as a result was terminated.
The whole hospital was shocked and upset at the termination of Billie Rose. They decided to call a meeting at Palin Hall to discuss what could be done to reinstate her position. To their amazement all different types of workers had come out to support Billie Rose, from nurses to housekeepers. With a petition full of supporters the nurses had drawn enough attention that Billie Rose was reinstated at St. Vincent.
This was a pivotal point in the organizing of St. Vincent. It was the first time the group of nurses had realized the power of solidarity and a united voice. The initial intention of the nurses club was to develop policy that would improve patient care and working conditions, but the hospital did not want to listen or take their suggestions. This demonstration had given the nurses the strength to move forward, they would organize a union.
The nurses continued to meet outside of the hospital to develop a Professional Performance Association.The nurses knew that it would be a difficult campaign, and despite the administrators and lawyers attempts to intimidate the nurses, they decided to petition for an election.
On November 7th 1974 the LPNs and RNs had the election to establish the Professional Performance Association. They were voting on two separate issues: whether to have the union, and whether or not the RNs and LPNs would be represented as one bargaining unit. The union had won the vote 113 to 23 and the RNs and LPNs would indeed be a single bargaining unit. The nurses at St. Vincent were the first nurses for over a thousand miles around to have submitted a petition to organize a union. When their first contract was implemented working conditions, wages and patient care improved dramatically.
The Professional Performance Association was a great beginning to the formation of the union at St. Vincent, but in order to gain more support against the hospital in contract negotiations, they decided it was time to seek national representation. An election was held to determine whether the nurses had wanted to affiliate with the National Union of Hospital and Healthcare employees.
The nurses at St. Vincent had voted in favor for national representation, but St. Vincent fought hard against it. St Vincent had filed charges against the decision and the National Labor Relations board ruled in favor of the Professional Performance Association, and we officially became District 1199NM.
It has now been almost thirty years since the first group of nurses decided to organize on the principals of patient care and to improve the working conditions and lives of health care workers. Today District 1199NM represents: St. Vincent Hospital in Santa Fe, The University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, Holy Cross Hospital in Taos, all Dietary workers at Highlands University, Los Alamos Medical Center, and the struggle continues at Alta Vista Regional Medical Center in Las Vegas New Mexico.
The enormous strides made by our Union have come about through the unity of our membership. In these days of division and discord in our country, the members of our Union have demonstrated that working people, differing in race, religion and political beliefs, can respect each other and work together for the benefit of all New Mexicans. Today District 1199NM continues to expand and grow stronger every day.