How did 1199, a Union begun in the 1930s by a small group of Jewish male pharmacists, grow to become the largest healthcare union in the country, with a membership of largely minority women and immigrants numbering more than 400,000? Are there lessons in the history of this Union that can help union and industry leaders navigate the challenges we face today?


These are some of the questions that prompted the Labor Management Project staff to form a book group to read and discuss “Upheaval in the Quiet Zone” by Leon Fink and Brian Greenberg, a history of 1199 that was first published in 1989 and revised in 2009. The group met once a month for two hours, reviewing two chapters each time. Staff volunteers prepared discussion guides and facilitated each session.


We completed the book in eight months, covering the first major strike of 1959, the Union’s growth to other states, its significant involvement in the civil rights movement and other social justice issues, its innovative approach to labor-management partnership in the 1980s and its more recent campaigns in support of homecare workers and a national minimum wage. Each month, facilitators drew on their creativity to enrich the discussions, using music, videos, archival flyers and newspaper articles and guest speakers, including Eddie Kay, Betty Hughley and Estela Vasquez.


At our last session we reflected on our experience. “I’m glad we did this,” said LMP Co-Director Clyde Riggins. “I have a better understanding of the true essence of struggle and more respect for the founders.” Consultant AnaElsa Aviles shared: “I now have a greater appreciation for parts of the Union I did not know, like Bread and Roses. This was a worthwhile effort. I would encourage others to read this book.” Consultant Regina Censullo found herself connecting things she read in the book to activism and social justice issues in her own work and life. She also found the group’s conversations enlightening. “I appreciated the open and frank discussions and opportunity to learn more about my colleagues,” she said.


As the LMP book group learned, 1199SEIU has been a major force driving social reform on both a local and national level since its inception. “For nearly three decades the local, then district, and finally national Union bearing the numerical designation 1199 has played a role in American labor affairs out of all proportion to its size,” write Fink and Greenberg. “Primarily this is because the history of the hospital workers’ Union continually has intersected with major social movements as well as structural transformations within postwar American life.”


We hope you’ll pick up a copy of Upheaval in the Quiet Zone and join us in being inspired by our union’s historic achievements.

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