Linking Black and Labor History: How Unions Saved Our Public Hospitals

February is Black History Month. Black labor leaders fought to save public hospitals that three New York City mayors attempted to shutter. During the COVID-19 pandemic, H+H public hospitals and essential workers are fighting to protect the health and lives of New Yorkers.

As DC 37 celebrates Black Heritage in February, the union reflects on its history, activism and critical role in saving New York City’s public hospitals and clinics and in protecting New Yorkers’ lives every day through medical emergencies, major crises and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Ralph Palladino, 2nd Vice President, DC 37 Local 1549

The New York City Health and Hospitals (NYC H+H, formerly HHC) is the largest and oldest public healthcare system in the country. It leads the way in New York City’s fight to end the COVID-19 pandemic. This great public system’s mission is to provide healthcare for poorer New Yorkers, immigrants and the uninsured, to treat the sick, regardless of their ability to pay.

Today, unions including New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) and District Council 37 (DC 37), along with Local 1199 SEIU, are fighting Medicaid cuts in Albany that could cripple the public system.

NYSNA has staged Albany sit-ins and rallies at hospitals, joined by DC 37 Locals 1549 and 420, and activists from many other locals and unions, to fight the cuts. We demand “Tax the Rich”– instead of cuts. 

Nurses in NYSNA and CWA linked safe staffing levels to quality of care, a strategy that has been important in stopping the cuts and winning public support.

Our struggles today stand on the shoulders of several Black labor leaders over the past 40 years.  If not for them, this great system would not exist today. In most other cities, public hospitals have closed or been privatized. Moreover, because workers and residents of New York City joined together and fought back, the public health care system exists.

Black-led unions spearheaded the fightback by joining with and helping to organize the community into the struggle. These successful campaigns are responsible for saving our public hospital system so vital in the fight to save lives in the current pandemic. 

Today NYC H+H has 17 large facilities and numerous community clinics leading the way in providing care and reducing severe disparities in healthcare that exist. 

1980s: Koch tries to close four city hospitals

Leaders like Jim Bell of the UAW and Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Jim Butler of DC 37 Local 420 and Jim Haughton of the Harlem Fightback—who fought discrimination in the construction trades, led the initial fight to stop Mayor Ed Koch from closing public hospitals in the poorest areas of the city. Community leaders Bill Lynch, an advisor to Dave Dinkins, Marshall England, Donald Jones, Rev. Timothy Mitchell and Rev. Herbert Daughtry joined the cause. 

It was in this battle that I got a chance to meet with and work with them. The meetings were held in the Fightback office above the old Kentucky Fried Chicken on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. It was the beginning of a long history struggle to save city hospitals. 

In the early 1980s Mayor Koch tried to close some HHC facilities. Unions and community groups formed a citywide Campaign to Save Our Hospitals. We staged a weeklong sit in at Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital, one of the hospitals scheduled for closure, and DC 37 held daily support demonstrations outside with community support that drew the media.

Sydenham became a focal point in the fight against disparities in healthcare in New York City. Mayor Koch was branded a racist since his hospital closings plan centered on communities of color throughout the city. 

During the Sydenham struggle, union activists from DC37 Locals 1549, 420 and 371 at Metropolitan Hospital in East Harlem, which also was scheduled to close, formed a labor-community coalition. They mobilized support from the community. Metropolitan remained open in part due to the Sydenham fight. 

Though Sydenham closed, Mayor Koch never tried to close another city hospital. He later admitted, “Trying to close Sydenham was the biggest mistake of my administration.” 

“Remember Sydenham” became a battle cry of nearly every fight to save public healthcare that took place afterward. At Bellevue, where I worked, we formed coalitions among various unions and the local communities to save our hospitals. 

1990s: Giuliani tries to privatize city hospitals

As mayor, Rudy Giuliani tried to privatize several HHC facilities. The Committee of Interns and Residents and DC 37 joined with then recently formed Commission on Public Health Systems, led by Harlem activist Marshall England, to form the Campaign to Save Our Public Hospitals. The HHC Community Advisory Boards joined the struggle. 

DC 37 Local 420 led organized prayer vigils at Gracie Mansion, rallies at churches and demonstrations at HHC facilities. They got widespread press attention by carrying to these events a coffin symbolizing the death of the hospital system. Union members and community residents testified at public hearings, often shouting down hospital and officials. The New York City Council sided with us against Giuliani and we won a lawsuit that stopped the privatization attempt.

During that anti-privatization fight, the Campaign coalition also mobilized at every HHC hospital and clinic to collect petitions and handwritten letters to fight Governor George Pataki’s attempt to cut Medicaid. We also did voter registration.  Patients thanked us for organizing these campaigns.

Joined by the private hospitals’ union Local 1199, DC 37 leader Stanley Hill, the union’s first Black executive director, led a protest rally where 32,000 union members turned out at Bellevue Hospital. We stopped Pataki’s draconian Medicaid cuts. 

2000s: Bloomberg tries again

During Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, DC 37 locals in the HHC Municipal Labor Committee, which included all unions in HHC, formed HEAT (Health Education Action Team). It served to educate union members and community residents about cuts in state Medicaid programs and privatization attempts. 

Activists from all DC 37 and NYSNA locals lobbied City Hall and Albany and set up tables at every city hospital to get petitions opposing budget cuts and calling for equity in funding for all safety net hospitals signed and delivered to Albany. Along with community residents, these activists stopped Bloomberg’s attempt to shutter North Central Bronx Hospital. 

Remember the past, fight for the future

Knowing this history is important for union members, patients, and community residents. Without unions and their dedicated and hardworking members, there would be no great public hospitals in New York. We must carry on the fight with these lessons in mind to get through this COVID crisis and successfully end disparities in healthcare and save our public healthcare system. Yes, Union Strong!

Ralph Palladino is 2nd vice president of Local 1549, and edits their newsletter, Members in the Know. He has published articles in the New York Daily News, Staten Island Advance, Asbury Park Press, and other media outlets and on the Mayor of New York’s website. 

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