1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East (UHE; sometimes styled SEIU Local 1199 or just 1199) is a large local union of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) representing employees of hospitals throughout the northeast United States. The union wields a great deal of political power in New York State and New York City, being described as “the union that rules New York.” Former 1199 officials served in prominent roles in the Obama administration, consulted for the administration of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D), and served as senior officials in the administration of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D); former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan) is a former 1199SEIU organizer.
Originally founded in 1932 as an independent union representing employees in pharmacies and drugstores, the union’s membership and political clout surged in the 1960s as it lobbied the state of New York for the power to organize and represent employees of not-for-profit hospitals. In 1998, 1199 merged into the national SEIU, becoming 1199SEIU. Due to the close relations between the government and the hospital sector in New York, 1199SEIU has been characterized as a “government union in all but name.”
The union is closely aligned with national, state, and city-level left-wing organizations and causes. Union president George Gresham was a speaker at the 2017 “Women’s March” demonstration against the Trump administration, and 1199SEIU was a key funder of the advocacy groups (which critics accused of being slush funds) for Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, the Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice and the Campaign for One New York. In the past, 1199SEIU used a partnership with the Greater New York Hospital Association and an alliance of convenience with New York State Republicans during periods of state-level Republican ascendancy to prevent reform of Medicaid reimbursement rates.
Some of the union’s New York City activities have proved exceptionally controversial. An 1199SEIU executive vice president praised left-wing Puerto Rican terrorist Oscar Lopez Rivera, comparing Lopez Rivera to George Washington during a dispute over whether Lopez Rivera should be honored by New York City’s Puerto Rican Day Parade. Another 1199SEIU executive vice president with responsibility for the union’s operations in Massachusetts was demoted after allegations emerged in early 2018 that he had made unwanted advances against female subordinates and engaged in “lewd behavior.”
The union which would become known as 1199SEIU was founded in 1932 by Leon Davis as Local 1199 of the Drug, Hospital, and Health Care Employees Union. Davis would later face accusations of membership in the Communist Party, which he denied.
Davis led two major strikes in New York in 1959 and 1962. The 1962 strike led to changes in New York State employment law which brought nonprofit hospitals—a target of 1199 organizing—under a state-level collective bargaining law. By the late 1960s, three-fourths of New York City hospital workers would be unionized. The federal clause exempting nonprofit hospitals from the National Labor Relations Act unionization law would be repealed in 1974, largely at 1199’s urging. Future potential strikes would be averted by increases in state and local government subsidies for hospitals, which could then be passed on to 1199 members.
In addition to an aggressive collective bargaining posture, Davis’s 1199 was involved in advancing a broad left-liberal agenda. The union was a core supporter of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and an early opponent of the Vietnam War.
Infighting After Davis
Leon Davis stepped down as 1199 president in 1982; his hand-picked replacement, Doris Turner, had a short and unsuccessful tenure. A 1984 strike failed to force concessions from city hospitals, and Turner was ousted in a 1986 election. By 1985, 1199 had affiliated with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.
Union supporters would later criticize Davis for having overly centralized authority and running the union as a “benevolent despotism,” which they argued contributed to the infighting and power struggles among 1199 leadership of the ensuing decade.
Georgianna Johnson defeated Turner in 1986. Her tenure was not substantially more peaceful than Turner’s. In 1987, union leadership engaged a physical altercation over a referendum on revisions to the 1199 bylaws which would have given more power to rank-and-file members. Johnson reportedly suffered injuries in the scuffle and blamed her secretary-treasurer, Edward Kay, for trying to usurp power in the union to shift 1199 from RWDSU into the SEIU.
Johnson faced a challenge in her first re-election campaign in 1989 from her former patron, an 1199 organizer from Puerto Rico ousted by Turner who ran as a vice president on Johnson’s 1986 slate, Dennis Rivera. Rivera, a onetime Vietnam draft dodger who became a union organizer and supporter of the extreme-left Puerto Rican Independence Party, defeated Johnson with the support of campaign consultants for then-New York mayoral candidate David Dinkins (D).
Rivera based his campaign on allying labor with political figures such as Dinkins and former Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson (D-Illinois). During Jackson’s campaign, 1199 and Rivera had aligned closely with the left-wing activist, leasing the campaign part of its office space while Rivera served as a city coordinator. Rivera’s approach to bargaining followed the “corporate campaign” model of a public relations and political campaign against the employer; former head of the New York League of Voluntary Hospitals Norman Metzger said of negotiating with Rivera: “Traditional across-the-table negotiations are not his métier […] He uses government officials as allies.”
Rivera would prove to be a militant foe of Medicaid reform in New York State from the very beginning of his term. When Gov. Mario Cuomo (D-N.Y.) proposed a reductions in Medicaid reimbursements in the early 1990s, Rivera responded by rallying demonstrators and registering tens of thousands of voters with an eventual goal of establishing a government-controlled healthcare system.
A change in partisan control of New York State government in 1994, when Republican George Pataki was elected Governor and the party extended its control of the State Senate, led to changes in 1199’s strategy. Rivera struck a personal relationship with relatively liberal Republican State Senate leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) to help kill Medicaid reform under both Gov. Pataki and his Democratic successor, Eliot Spitzer. Rivera also formed a partnership with the Greater New York Hospital Association, the trade group for the nonprofit hospitals, which would become the Healthcare Education Project.
In 1999, 1199 used a $13 million lobbying campaign to secure a $1 billion expansion of New York’s Medicaid program, known as Family Health Plus. The union used its pension fund to pay the lobbying expenditures. Despite outreach to Gov. Pataki and state Republicans, Rivera pushed a broadly left-wing agenda. Rivera and 1199 campaigned for tenant protections, same-sex marriage rights, government-run healthcare, and the withdrawal of U.S. Navy operations from the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
Mergers and SEIU Affiliation
Even before taking office as 1199 president, Rivera had sought to align the union with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) since 1982. By 1998, Rivera commissioned a vote of 1199’s membership on affiliating with the SEIU; the proposal passed, creating 1199SEIU.
In addition to affiliating with the national SEIU, a move expressly aimed at increasing 1199’s political power, SEIU Local 144 was merged into 1199SEIU, making the newly combined union the largest in New York City. The merger was orchestrated by Andy Stern, then head of the national SEIU, after Stern ousted Local 144’s president for financial misconduct including spending $257,000 on a “dinner dance.”
Health Care Reform Act
In closed-door negotiations in 2002 with Gov. Pataki, Rivera and 1199SEIU secured a deal (known as the Health Care Reform Act of 2002) exceeding $1 billion to use new tax increases on cigarettes and the one-time revenue from Empire Blue Cross-Blue Shield’s transition to for-profit status to further expand pay and benefits for healthcare workers, such as 1199SEIU’s members. Analysts said that the Empire Blue Cross transition negotiated by 1199SEIU “violated perhaps every civics lesson in how public policy should be made.”
The concessions at the expense of taxpayers would secure the union’s endorsement for the Gov. Pataki’s final re-election campaign in 2002, a move which drew criticism from labor union activists who favored 1199SEIU pursuing a broad, partisan, and cohesive liberal agenda.
In 2007, 1199SEIU secretary-treasurer George Gresham succeeded Rivera as president of the union. The succession came as then-Governor Eliot Spitzer (D-N.Y.) had proposed a series of reforms to Medicaid reimbursements which were expected to save state taxpayers $1.2 billion. Gresham came from a long background in far-left politics: He reportedly “dabbled in black nationalism” in his youth and spent 19 years in various union organizing roles and officerships before taking office as president.
Healthcare Education Project
Rivera’s alliance with the Greater New York Hospital Association (GNYHA), known as the Healthcare Education Project has lobbied and advocated for expansions of the Medicaid government-run health insurance program for lower-income people, as well as continued increases in other state healthcare spending. The Healthcare Education Project continues to exist as a partnership between the 1199SEIU union and the GNYHA as of 2018.
In 1999, 1199SEIU and GNYHA lobbied New York to hike its cigarette excise tax in order to expand Medicaid. The two entities together spent 14 times what the leading opponent of the tax increase, tobacco products manufacturer Phillip Morris, spent lobbying the state. The $13 million joint 1199SEIU and GNYHA effort also defeated attempts by Gov. Pataki to institute reforms to the program.
In 2007, newly elected Gov. Spitzer sought to make substantial cuts to Medicaid and other state healthcare spending. In response, 1199SEIU traded on its alliance with State Senate Republican Leader Joseph Bruno and dropped millions of dollars on a public relations campaign to reduce the proposed spending reforms by 75 percent. Gov. Spitzer was reported to have said that “1199 owns Joe.”
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) commissioned a Medicaid reform program, he gave former 1199SEIU leader Rivera and GNYHA head Kenneth Raske seats on the Medicaid Redesign Team; the special interest groups would spend $6.8 million together to support Cuomo’s plan to shift some Medicaid spending responsibility from state to federal taxpayers.
Fight for $15
Also see Fight for $15 (Movement)
The national Service Employees International Union (SEIU), with which 1199SEIU has affiliated, has advanced a multi-million-dollar corporate campaign to increase the national minimum wage to $15 per hour and speed unionization of restaurants, known as Fight for $15. In New York, 1199SEIU has been credited with “almost totally” funding the “Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice,” a political committee associated with Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) which propelled the successful effort to pass a $15 wage mandate in New York State.
New York City Politics
1199SEIU is a major player in New York City municipal politics, being a foe of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) and a close ally of his successor, Bill de Blasio (D). The union has aligned with the far-left Working Families Party in the past, though it severed its financial support for the WFP amid disputes over state-level endorsements in 2014.
Conflicts with Bloomberg
New York City politics during Bloomberg’s mayoralty were described as a battle between “public-sector unions on one side, [and] billionaires on the other.” In 2005, 1199SEIU endorsed a challenger to then-Mayor Bloomberg after Bloomberg rejected a demand by the union that he transfer 25,000 healthcare workers onto the city’s direct payroll. In 2011, the union secured a $50 million state bailout of its troubled health-insurance fund while demanding the Bloomberg administration increase Medicaid reimbursements for in-home care; the city balked at the demand.
Electoral Support for de Blasio
After years of conflict with the Bloomberg administration, 1199SEIU endorsed then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio (D) in the 2013 primary elections for mayor. De Blasio had longstanding associations with the union; he had reportedly been a paid consultant for the SEIU New York State Council in the early 2000s. De Blasio was paid by 1199 during a 2001 bid for city council; a Daily News commentator called it “possibly the biggest and most questionable in-kind donation anyone’s ever made to a Council campaign.”
1199SEIU’s endorsement came with at least $2 million in support focused on communications and organizing targeted to 1199SEIU members in the City to get out the vote. Reports indicated a number of 1199 organizers were paid directly by de Blasio’s campaign to campaign on his behalf; at least 200 were involved in organizing campaign volunteers, though it was not clear how many were paid by the campaign. 1199SEIU officials credited de Blasio’s rise to victory in the determinative primary election to 1199 efforts, noting that de Blasio began rising in the polls after the union’s mailers began to appear. 1199SEIU claims that over 100,000 of its members are registered Democrats in New York City; de Blasio won the 2013 primary by roughly that margin.
Alignment with the de Blasio Administration
1199SEIU has been closely aligned with de Blasio’s administration since its 2013 transition. A number of 1199 and SEIU officials, employees, or other associates held roles in the de Blasio transition; most prominently, 1199 president Gresham served on the formal, 60-member “transition team.” Patrick Gaspard, a former 1199 political official then serving as United States Ambassador to South Africa in the Obama administration was reportedly a “political advisor” in addition to a personal friend of de Blasio. De Blasio also appointed a former 1199 consultant to a deputy mayor post and a former 1199 organizer to serve as his intergovernmental affairs director.
1199SEIU continued to fund de Blasio’s often controversial political operations throughout his first term. The union provided $250,000 to the Campaign for One New York (CfONY), a “social welfare” advocacy group operated by de Blasio-associated consulting firms including the BerlinRosen communications consultancy which worked on de Blasio’s mayoral election campaign. De Blasio used CfONY to promote his national left-wing policy program, the “Progressive Contract with America,” in advance of the 2016 general elections. CfONY folded in 2016 amid allegations that the organization operated as a mayoral slush fund. 1199SEIU was also a contributor to United for Affordable NYC, another de Blasio-aligned pressure group advocating for the administration’s housing policies.
1199SEIU officials engaged in vigorous advocacy surrounding the city’s debate over the sale of a nursing home, Rivington House. 1199SEIU advocates found a receptive audience in the mayor’s office; both the deputy mayor who drafted the city’s formal policy consideration memo and the mayor’s aide for intergovernmental affairs were former 1199SEIU employees. The New York Times reported that 1199SEIU’s concerns about its members’ jobs and pensions were both noted in the memo.
The union’s advocacy surrounding a second city healthcare decision drew federal scrutiny. 1199SEIU pushed the de Blasio administration to take aggressive steps to prevent the closure of the money-losing Long Island College Hospital. The effort ended in the sale of the hospital property to 1199’s preferred bidder, Fortis Property Group, which was also the preferred bidder of the state and city governments. A federal investigation was later conducted to determine if there was improper influencing of the city government and the de Blasio administration in the sale; 1199SEIU was subpoenaed. No charges were filed in the case.
1199SEIU is aligned with left-wing organizations working with Mayor de Blasio to shift New York City to the left, even outside of labor and employment policy. 1199SEIU arranged meetings between Justice League, an anti-police protest group, and de Blasio.
1199SEIU has been involved in associations with a number of extremist political campaigns and associated with extremist and other far-left people and groups.
Oscar Lopez Rivera
The union is a long-standing supporter of convicted Marxist-Leninist Puerto Rican nationalist terrorist Oscar Lopez Rivera, praising him as a “freedom fighter” and “community organizer to advocate for quality education and affordable housing” after Lopez Rivera was granted clemency by President Barack Obama. Lopez Rivera was convicted of seditious conspiracy and unlawful weapons possession charges and later had his sentence extended for plotting and escape from prison with the aid of the left-wing terrorist group Weather Underground.
After he received clemency, 1199SEIU hosted a reception for Lopez Rivera, reportedly with the support of left-wing then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan). The union’s executive vice president, Estela Vazquez, vocally defended a decision by the partially 1199-funded Puerto Rican Day Parade to honor Lopez Rivera as a “National Freedom Hero,” saying of the terrorist: “George Washington fought for his country, and Oscar López Rivera fought for his country. He should be celebrated just as George Washington is celebrated.”
After the 2016 elections, 1199SEIU endorsed left-wing U.S. Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. The controversial Ellison had a long history of close and continuing alignment with labor unions, including serving on the board of union-affiliated think tank Economic Policy Institute. Ellison would later support the 1199SEIU-endorsed plan for government-run “single payer” healthcare.
Demonstrations against Hospital Gifts
When New York businessman and libertarian philanthropist David Koch offered a $100 million contribution to construct a new wing at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, 1199SEIU—in association with the New York State Nurses Association labor union and the NAACP New York State Conference—led a demonstration opposing the contribution which was attended by New York City government officials. An 1199SEIU spokesperson condemned the philanthropic contributions saying that “not just the super-rich” should have access to healthcare and that “If there isn’t going to be any justice, there isn’t going to be any peace.” A spokesperson for Koch expressed befuddlement at the unions’ activities, as part of the contributed funds would be used to hire additional hospital staff.
National Action Network
Also see National Action Network (Nonprofit)
The National Action Network of controversial former politician and political agitator and propagandist Al Sharpton receives funding from 1199SEIU. George Gresham, the 1199SEIU president, has appeared on Sharpton’s MSNBC a number of times, prompting speculation that labor unions like 1199 were funding National Action Network in exchange for consideration for appearances.
The union and Sharpton’s group have collaborated on agitation campaigns, perhaps most prominently in a 2012 effort to oppose New York City Police Department “stop and frisk” tactics which received favorable coverage by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. Other alignments between 1199 and National Action Network include appearances by Gresham at NAN events, support for a NAN rally after the arrest-related death of Eric Garner, and a concert directed at activating voters in advance of the 2017 Virginia state elections.
In 2017, Tyrek Lee Sr. was suspended from his office as executive vice president of 1199SEIU with responsibility for the union’s activities in Massachusetts. Lee had allegedly “pursued sexual relationships with female co-workers by employing behavior that went beyond typical flirting,” using graphic and salacious language in text messages with female co-workers, including younger subordinates and touching female co-workers on the shoulders and back. Lee was also reportedly accused of exposing his genitals and urinating in front of co-workers outside of work hours. After an internal investigation, Lee was stripped of his position as executive vice president, demoted, and reassigned within the union, but not fired.
The union has also faced criticism for excessive spending. A 2013 New Year’s party held shortly after Mayor de Blasio’s election reportedly cost the union nearly $800,000.
George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU, a position he has held since 2007. Gresham comes from a background in left-wing politics and trade unionism; his father was a Teamsters union activist and Gresham spent 32 years in 1199 as a member and officer before taking office.
Gresham’s position as 1199SEIU president has made him a prominent figure in New York politics. In addition to serving on Mayor de Blasio’s transition team, Gresham has given a speech to the Women’s March protest of the Trump administration and served on the host committee for New York City’s unsuccessful bid to host the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
According to the union’s financial disclosures, Gresham was paid $288,283 in salary in 2017.
Maria Castaneda serves as Secretary Treasurer of 1199SEIU. She was paid $174,764 in salary in 2017.
In addition to her position with the union, Castaneda serves on the board of directors of the environmentalist group Riverkeeper. An advocate of close alignment between labor unions and environmentalist groups, Castaneda proposed the left-of-center factions form “a resistance movement” after the election of President Donald Trump, arguing both factions “have the same enemy.”