Public Employee Press
Local 420 Collection at NYU
Saving our history
Archives Director Michael Nash presents Local 420 President Carmen Charles with
a copy of the index for the Hospital Workers collection on September 20
at the official opening of the Local 420 collection at NYU.
By JANE LaTOUR
Decade after decade,
dusty documents pile up inside file cabinetsthe memos, executive board minutes,
and campaign fliers that together, tell the story of a great labor union.
On Sept. 20, DC 37 ExecutiveDirector Lillian Roberts and Municipal Hospital
Empolyees Local 420 President Carmen Charles, along with staff, officers and members
dressed in their trademark white uniforms, gathered at New York Universitys
Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives to celebrate their history and its preservation.
The event marked the official opening of the archival collection of Local
420. Now, all the photographs, memorabilia, and historic records that were donated
to the archives by the local have been professionally cataloged. An inventory
of both the paper records and the non-print collection has been prepared and bound
in an index thats available for use by historians and other researchers,
as well as by the members.
Michael Nash, the director of the archives,
posed a question to attendees: Why is this union history important?
Answering, he pointed to the evidence on the walls an exhibit of photographs
pulled from the collection and enlarged into huge posters that told the story
of the municipal hospital workers in New York City.
Nash spoke about
some of the milestones along the way, including Local 420s role in civil
rights history. The linkage between the civil rights movement and the fight
for the rights of labor is the story of Local 420, he said. It helped
to advance the cause of social justice. By joining forces with the civil rights
movement, the union was able to contribute towards building a resilient labor
F. Wagner Labor Archives/Tamiment Library,
New York University, AFSCME Local
420 Hospital Workers Photographs Collection.
Local 420 members mobilized alongside community and health care activists in a
militant campaign to fight back against federal and city-imposed budget cuts.
Massive efforts prevented most of the draconian cuts proposed by government officials
from taking place. DC 37 and Local 420 spearheaded the huge effort to save jobs
hundreds of photographs from Local 420s collection shows hospital workers
rallying in 1981 in aneffort to keep Sydenham Hospital in Harlem open. This campaign
mobilized thousands of union members.
recalled his first trip to the locals former headquarters on 125th Street.
There was a marvelous display of photographs in the conference room that
reinforced this connection between the civil rights and the labor movement,
he said. The first 10 years of Local 420s life was particularly difficult.
In the 1950s, there was a fierce jurisdictional fight with the Teamsters.
Then, in the 1960s, Lillian Roberts came to New York City from Chicago. She
brought with her a commitment and an energy to organize. Nash credited Local
420 President Carmen Charles with having the foresight to donate the records in
order to provide a clear sense of the unions history. The historical
meaning of the union lies in learning from what they did right and what they did
wrong. The future depends on knowing your past, said Nash.
The presence of so many people in the room who actually
worked to build the union was one source of the events magnetic charge.
President Charles introduced Lillian Roberts as one of the pioneers
ofLocal 420. When I arrived in New York City, I saw the opportunity
to do many things and one of those things was to work with the members of Local
420, said Roberts. This local is very, very close to my heart. We
would not have citywide bargaining if it were not for Local 420 and Local 1549,
As attendees mingled at the reception before the presentations,
Hospital Division Director Johnnie Locus caught sight of her younger self in one
of the blown-up photos on the wall. Thats me! she exclaimed.
The black and white poster captured her in action as she demonstrated alongside
others to save the citys hospitals.
Back in 1968, Locus went to
work at Coler-Goldwater Hospital as a Nurses Aide and then became a Medical
Surgical Technician. She recalled those early demonstrations, the force that was
used by the Police Department, and how the unions stood together.
what were all about, she said. Were still fighting to
keep the hospitals open. The struggle to preserve the citys municipal
hospitals is a thread that runs throughout Local 420s history.
420 President Carmen Charles (l.) with Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives Director
Michael Nash, DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts, and Cornell Universitys
Lois Gray at the opening of Local 420s collection on Sept. 20.
Saving city hospitals
From 1979 to 1981, organizing efforts took up the fight against budget cuts imposed
at the federal level by the Reagan administration that jeopardized the citys
already hard-pressed municipal hospital system. Thousands of Local 420 members
took to the streets alongside other community activists in protest. Mayor Edward
Koch contributed his share of sorrow to the cup of hardship by threatening to
close down hospitals located in poverty-stricken communities.
campaign was launched to keep the doors open and to save jobs. Metropolitan Hospital,
located in largely Hispanic East Harlem, was under attack, as well as Sydenham
Hospital, located in Harlem proper. In what now seems like déjà
vu all over again, the then-mayor issued a Plan for Improving the Effectiveness
of Hospital Services in New York City. Closing these two hospitals formed
the cornerstone of his proposal. The plan also included huge service reductions
and a $30 million budget decrease for the other hospitals.
campaign to fight this plan was led by Lillian Roberts and DC 37. By design, the
turmoil in opposition spread into the streets. This grassroots initiative
generated the pressure to compel Kochs retreat, wrote Jewel and Bernard
Bellush in their massive history of DC 37, Union Power and New York.
As the Bellushes note, in response to the joint community and labor campaign,
Secretary Joseph Califano of Health, Education and Welfare ordered a federal
investigation into possible civil rights violations in the citys proposals
to shut down hospitals. Shortly thereafter, city and state health officials agreed
to keep Metropolitan Hospital open, while HHC President Hoffman announced that
the proposed $30 million in cuts be reduced to $13 million, and the projected
layoff of 1,000 hospital aides had been revoked. Not until a year later did the
city finally abandon Sydenham.
This is only one of the many stories
reflected in the records and photographs now safely preserved for the future at
the Wagner Labor Archives. These records are now organized and stored in archival
boxes and their description can be found in the pages of the index that serves
as a guide to the collection.
Local 420 President Carmen Charles hailed
the campaign to save the city hospitals and the other outstanding efforts that
make up the hospital workers history. All along, its been a fight
for dignity. Through their union, hospital workers had the opportunity to say,
Were somebody too!
The archival records collection of Local 420 spans the years
from 1967 to 2002. But the historical record of this important union is still
While the collection is relatively complete for the last
two decades, we are in search of records from the 1950s through the 1970s. More
records are out there. Heres how you can help:
If you are
one of the pioneers who helped to build the union, or if you participated in any
of the organizing campaigns conducted by Local 420, you probably have some important
papers in your possession.
To help make the historical record complete,
please add these documents to the Hospital Workers Local 420 Collection at the
You can do so by contacting Michael Nash, director
of the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, at 212-998-2428, or by e-mailing him at:
Campaign posters, buttons, photographs, and other memorabilia are all