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.
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
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?
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.
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
Does that go for Black members of Congress, too?
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?
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.
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?
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
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,
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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?
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.
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?
First of all, they've been laying off millions of workers
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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
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?
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.
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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