"Make sure that you're not organizing solely to collect dues," says Henry Nicholas, President of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees (NUHHCE) and an International Vice President of AFSCME, the giant public employees union. Nicholas, 65, has led NUHHCE since 1981, when it was known simply as Local 1199 AFL-CIO.

1199 set a modern-day standard for militant advocacy for social justice, within and beyond the union movement. NUHHCE and AFSCME currently represent 375,000 health care employees. Nicholas works ceaselessly to gather the nation's health care workers under one, big union umbrella. He spoke to from his Philadelphia offices.

: Thirty-something years ago, during the Nixon era, many labor and civil rights activists believed we were on the verge of winning a Guaranteed National Minimum Income, something approaching European-style social democracy. What happened?

Nicholas: What happened to all of the social programs when the nation moved to the right? Our elected officials got amnesia and started buckling at the knees. And as a result, no real, new social policies have been implemented, including national health care insurance that is needed now more than ever.

They got amnesia, meaning they forgot what they should be advocating for. They got weak-kneed and started to foot-shuffling and knee-bending and all the things you start to do when you lack the courage to stand up for justice.

: Does that go for Black members of Congress, too?

Nicholas: Our members are for the most part without the basic knowledge of the goings on of the political infrastructure in which they are supposed to be advocating for our rights. They're not involved in articulating and drafting legislation. It is not where their interests lie. They're talking about how to survive from day to day.

: The South is the least organized, yet highest job growth, region of the nation. What are labor's prospects?

Nicholas: There's very little labor history in the South because the boll weevil Democrats and the boll weevil Republicans actually articulate the agenda for America. Jesse Jackson Jr., in his book "A More Perfect Union," articulates the burden that we have in moving social policy in America, because those who have opposed social policy from the beginning are in charge, they politically dominate this country - those southern elected officials.

They've got laws that stop workers from organizing that are the worst laws in the universe. Bill Clinton couldn't change that, because he was the President with a Republican House and Senate. To change it, you've got to say that you are pro-workers' liberation, and they were not that. Even some of the Democrats, especially the southern Democrats, are to the right of the Republicans.

: What kinds of resources are necessary to organize in the South?

Nicholas: The labor movement, in my opinion should be less concerned about the money they've invested in the stock market, and what the returns on that money are or should be. They should invest those dollars in organizing the unorganized. I'm not encouraged because all of us, as an institution need to be doing more and more. I'm out on the battlefield 17 hours a day, seven days a week, running from state to state like Paul Revere, bringing a message of organizing. And every labor leader in America should have that as his first and second and final concern: empowering the workers, building a more perfect union.

: Both AFSCME and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are attempting to unionize low wage, largely immigrant workers in the service sector.

Nicholas: They are the apartheid workers of our generation in the Americas. The problem is, some unions see that as not being in the interest of their leadership protection. And so they're not anxious to spend millions of dollars to help those people who are stuck at the bottom. They have not articulated that to the membership, as they are now. You've got to recognize that we have not changed social policy in the real sense since the beginning of time. Racism is still a major issue in the Americas. So, if you're spending my money and I'm a professional, high-falutin' worker… There are a lot of workers that don't want to spend their money helping them. The same as it is when you talk about needing to raise taxes to advance social programs, the normal feeling is that I don't want to pay taxes to help them. It's that same debate when you talk about immigrant workers.

Hispanics are just one of the groups. In California, we're talking about ethnic groups that speak seven different languages.

: For years, SEIU and AFSCME engaged in cutthroat competition to represent home health care workers in California. Now the two unions work hand in glove.

Nicholas: Those who articulate the agenda recognize that it is not about them, it is about empowering the workers. And when they put justice above safety and justice above pride, then they do and behave appropriately. That is what is evidently happening with SEIU and our union in dealing with the more than 200,000 home health care workers in that state. The leadership changed, and the people who are involved have a social conscience, and if you have a social conscience, that will be your guide.

We got lucky in California. We had a good, opportunistic, fair-minded governor in California [Gray Davis] that gave us legislation and the power to grow. It doesn't just happen in the abstract. You've got to be driving that agenda.

Our union is leading the organizing efforts of the national [AFSCME]. But the kinds of resources that are needed are not being expended, to get the job done. The number one need for the American labor movement is to empower the suffering masses. And we have not been an aggressive voice by putting our dollars where our desires are.

: Nicholas is disappointed with the progress of the Living Wage Movement, the national effort to join community, clergy and labor activists in common struggle toward specific goals, such as higher minimum wages and organizing poor workers.

Nicholas: There ain't no such thing as a Living Wage Movement. It doesn't exist. When do you see a preacher on a picket line? The people who are given the responsibility for carrying out the moral agenda for America are the churches and organized labor. And in most cases they are ducking for cover, hiding from reality, not assuming their rightful roles. And that role is to be upfront, leading.

Ken Msemaji's voice is the correct voice that is not heard on Sunday. [Msemaji is President of the United Domestic Workers of America, the San Diego-based, AFSCME-affiliated home health care union.] The churches are not inviting him, saying, "Come on down and let's talk about that, you've got a good idea." Even though they know he's right.

We are not even a voice in the minority of the union movement. We are a voice in the wilderness, crying out for social justice. Ain't nobody going to advance Henry Nicholas and Ken Msemaji's ideology. They're happy that we're all in the same union together, so we won't infect people outside of our own niche.

: What about the young union leadership coming up?

Nicholas: Hell, they're coming up but they're not empowered. That's just like coming out and having no place to go. You have to be in charge to have an impact on an institutional policy. You can't have that from the outside.

: Give us your assessment of the state of the social contract in America.

Nicholas: Hell, there has not been a social contract for the poor people in this country. The social contract was written by those who have not changed since the 1800s, and they believe that a social contract in America is not to spend $40,000 per student for education but, instead, to spend that kind of money to build more and bigger jails.

The evidence is, when Bush and his crowd, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft shut down social advocacy in America, America was silent on it. And when Bush said you're either with me or against me, no one stood up and said, What do you mean by that? Does that mean you are impeding the social justice that we have achieved thus far?

: The Bush administration has been making a big show of preparations to cope with the effects of biological and chemical attacks against the U.S. Have they asked for any input from the health care unions?

Nicholas: They ain't talking to nobody in labor. My union represents the largest work force in America, AFSCME is the largest union within the AFL-CIO. And they ain't talking to [AFSCME President Gerald W.] McEntee, because they say that we're on the other side and that we had our chance when Clinton was in, and now it's their chance, and they're not concerned about what we want.

You gotta understand - you can't have bread and bullets. You can't be spending $1.8 billion a month looking for bin Laden when you need to raise your polling numbers, and talk about social programs. We have 44 million people out of health care [insurance] and that's growing every day. There has to be money in the budget for dealing with even the small social programs. When the war starts you'll die from either smallpox or all the other diseases, or you'll spend the money looking for Saddam Hussein.

They haven't consulted [AFL-CIO chief] John Sweeney either, and he's in charge of the whole federation. And they're not going to contact him.

: What role have the media played in the battle for social justice?

Nicholas: They were part of the justification when Clarence Thomas and his group [on the U.S. Supreme Court] stole the American dream, that is, the people's right to elect their own representatives. The media didn't rise up and talk about how awful it was. They said it's time to get in behind George Bush and they got right behind him.

They don't deal with the major issues confronting the Americas. We are the number one jail-industrial-complex in the world, and the fastest growing part of the society is not education, not health care, but jails. There are not ongoing editorials about what we should do about our jail system. We are finding that there are hundreds of people who have been serving most of their adult lives in jail who are being let go because the jail system failed them. Justice in this system is not blind.

: How has the political climate changed since September 11?

Nicholas: First of all, they've been laying off millions of workers since 9-11.

They changed the legal structure that permitted the government of the United State to lock people up and hold them without charging them. We were all asleep, the press and all, and said nothing about it. So, if you have a picket line, all they have to do is plant a provocateur and create a situation and lock everybody up and say you were part of a terrorist organization and keep you there until we take over all of the oil in the Middle East.

There are 44 million people without health care. There are millions of people in jail. Almost 900,000 Black men between 19 and 39 are in jail and there are no outcries. Some of the most bright and articulate minds in our movement are in jail. The government imposed a drug culture on our communities. Noriega worked for Bush. Bin Laden worked for Bush [Sr.] when he was at the CIA and when he was President. Saddam was one of the Bush's CIA operatives. They knew where bin Laden's money was because they used to put money in his bank account. They knew about all those holes in the mountains because they helped him build them. If they go after them, after they played a major role in their agenda, they'll plant some heroin on me in two minutes and lock me up.

When Bush said you're either with us or against us, people ran like hell and avoided us like we had the plague.

: Nicholas says people are looking for terrorists in all the wrong places.

Nicholas: In every state of the union there is a big militia out there. The church hasn't condemned them. The labor movement has not condemned them. The federal government has not condemned them. We have as many terrorists among our rightists as they have in those countries where bin Laden comes from. The guy who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma was not from bin Laden's group. He was from our group. The kids that shot up those high schools didn't train with bin Laden. They got their ideology from us. No one will talk about the militia.

Here in Pennsylvania we have one of the largest militias. Every Friday they get in the trucks with the guns and go up in the mountains and get ready to make war. Not making war on some foreign enemy. They're not volunteering, telling Bush, I'll go take Saddam out. They want to come to North Philly and take Nicholas out. Because they believe that what I got is theirs and they want it back. Because the Americas don't belong to me, it belongs to them. That's their position, it hasn't changed since they passed the three-fifths compromise.

: Nicholas on his own retirement:

Nicholas: I've been doing this since 1961, non-stop, seven days a week, 17 hours a day. I'll never stop. Too many people go to bed hungry every night.

I think its fair to say that we've made some progress, that Black folks are the people who are organizing into unions faster than any other ethnic group. But our numbers are being diminished because too many of us are in prison already. Our numbers are not growing any faster in the labor movement than they are growing in the industrial-jail-complex, which is a crisis in itself. No one wants to talk about that crisis.

: Where should labor place its priorities?

Nicholas: The first priority is jobs, the second is education, and health care. Those are the number one issues. And then there has to be a moratorium on the death penalty.

You have to keep on organizing and hope that you have the resources to do that well. And make sure that you're not organizing solely to collect dues. That has to be part of the method that you bring to the workers of America. We need to continue to educate and advocate for justice.

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Issue Number 14
October 17, 2002





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Other commentaries in this issue:

Permanent War: Permanent State of Emergency

Trojan Horse Watch: Bob Johnson’s message invades Black radio...Rep. Harold Ford: mess of the blue dog...The Trojan Horse TV show

Briefs:The Four Eunuchs of War...The most dangerous game...Smack, Blow, and Blowback...Lethally stupid and more...

IRAQ, WAR & COLOR RACISM: By Dr. David Graham Du Bois, Guest Commentator

A Jewish Peace Activist on Baraka’s Poem: Urban Legends by Rachael Kamel, Guest Commentator

e-MailBox: The Real Rosa Parks...NAACP challenged on war...Plato and the Emperor George...Deceitful billionaire busted...Anglo-Saxon alarmed

RE-PRINT: Harry Belafonte on Colin Powell...CNN Larry King Live Interview with Belafonte

Commentaries in Issue 13 October 3 , 2002:

Lantern of Liberty:
Harriet Tubman Mural Replaced by a Parking Lot

BET's Black Billionaire Trojan Horse:
"Democrat" Bob Johnson Fronts For GOP

Black Children Still Victimized by "Savage Inequalities":
Public education amid racism and isolation
by Elena Rutherford, Guest Commentator

Black political self-financing
Senator Ed Brooke mislaid
Hip Hop and heroin
Anglo-Saxons beware

A letter to our readers:
Black America and Bush's New World Order

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety by going to the Past Issues page.