fbpx Employees at 1199SEIU, One of the City’s Most Powerful Unions, Are Organizing for Their Own Staff Union  - Documented

Employees at 1199SEIU, One of the City’s Most Powerful Unions, Are Organizing for Their Own Staff Union 

1199SEIU staff say that the union has been retaliating against workers who have been organizing.

Staff members at 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, one of the city’s most powerful and influential unions, have not been able to enjoy the same union protections they help ensure for thousands of New Yorkers. To change that, 1199SEIU staff, which includes many immigrant workers, are pushing to form their own union with the Newsguild-CWA Local 32035 and AFL-CIO. Yet despite working directly for a labor union, staff say the campaign, which was first discussed in January but was made public on March 1, has not been embraced by 1199SEIU management. 

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If successful, the union would cover over 250 1199SEIU staffers across the East Coast stretching from New England to Florida. Local 32035 currently represents the staff of various unions, such as the Florida Public Service Union, United Food and Commercial Workers and the AFL-CIO.

Documented spoke with five staff members who say they hope that a union would be able to improve their salaries, protect their benefits, and have some say in the day-to-day operations of 1199SEIU when it comes to their work and wellbeing.

Although they hoped 1199SEIU would voluntarily recognize the union, which had a majority of staff sign cards in support, 1199SEIU chose to bring the matter up for an election. 

Staff members say that 1199SEIU has actively tried to foil workers’ attempts to organize through retailing against staff leaders. Many staff leaders claim that they have received numerous anonymous phone calls urging them to vote against joining the union. In response, staff has filed two unfair labor practices charges with The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against 1199SEIU.

Donald Hemmings, 59, was employed by 1199SEIU as a training coordinator for 11 years and is actively involved in the unionization efforts as an organizer. As an immigrant from Jamaica, Hemmings said he was able to effectively communicate with the mostly Caribbean healthcare workforce about their labor rights because he shared their cultural experiences and outlook. 

Donald Hemmings outside 1199 headquarters. Photo: Amir Khafagy for Documented.

Last Friday, Hemmings was abruptly fired by 1199SEIU management. 

“I think it was retaliation because we decided to organize a union and the other internal struggles we have been having,” he said. 

According to Hemmings, management claimed the firing was due to poor work performance, but he claims to have no record of any issue with his performance and that the firing was a result of vocal support for the union. 

“But if you’re going to do something like termination you have to have some evidence to show, I’m not making the grade,” he said.

Bryn Lloyd-Bollard, Director of Communications at 1199SEIU, refutes the claim that the union retaliated against Hemmings or any worker for that matter. 

“1199SEIU recently terminated the employment of a staff member for neglecting to carry out the basic responsibilities of their job, despite repeated instruction. We have an obligation to our members to be good stewards of their dues and to ensure they are being represented effectively,” he said. “This action had nothing to do with the in-house staff organizing campaign. The former staff member has the right to request arbitration if they so choose, just as 1199 members do under our union contracts with employers.”

Among the many grievances staff have that motivated them to join the union, one of the main issues is their status as at-will employees. As at-will employees, a staff member can be fired for any reason, and without warning, as long as the reason doesn’t violate the law, such as because of race, religion, or gender. 

Despite working for a union, 1199SEIU staffers are not protected by a collective bargaining contract that would otherwise give them the ability to contest their firing through a grievance procedure. 

Neville Edwards, 71, is a computer programmer from Jamaica who has worked for 1199SEIU for 35 years. The abrupt way management has fired long-time staffers like Hemmings became one of his main motivators for joining the union campaign. 

Neville Edwards outside 1199 Headquarters on Thursday May 16. Photo: Amir Khafagy for Documented.

“I’m just an at-will worker so therefore we have no rights, no say, no nothing,” he said. “In fact, we are carrying the load in keeping the union running logistically, technologically, financially, legally are all the workers out here.”

Many staffers like Edwards pay dues to 1199SEIU, although they are not union members or part of a collective bargaining agreement. 

“Why the hell am I paying dues if I’m not a member?” he said.  “They collect dues but we don’t have a say.”

Bollard of 1199SEIU insists that the union respects the rights of its staff to form a union and will not interfere in the election process. “In the interests of labor solidarity, we are committed to remaining neutral, just as we expect of all employers where workers are engaged in organizing,” he said. “Contrary to some allegations, the Union has abstained from influencing staff one way or the other, as employees on both sides of the issue campaign in advance of their election.”

Voting begins on May 17, and ballots will be mailed out to staff members. The ballots are to be mailed back to the NLRB no later than June 7. 

Edwards, who like many of his co-workers, continued to work through the height of the pandemic, plans to vote in favor of a union because he believes it’s time they be recognized for their work. 

“During the pandemic, they were able to run beautifully because of our work,” he said. “But once we talk about it now, they don’t want to talk about it.”

Correction May 22, 2024: An earlier version of this story misspelled Neville Edwards’ name. It is Neville Edwards, not Navel Edwards. We apologize for the error.

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