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  Public Employee Press

PEP Dec 2006
Table of Contents
  La Voz

Public Employee Press

Local 420 Collection at NYU

Saving our history

Wagner Labor 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.


Decade after decade, dusty documents pile up inside file cabinets—the 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 University’s 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 that’s 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 420’s 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 movement.”

Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives/Tamiment Library,
New York University, AFSCME Local 420 Hospital Workers Photographs Collection.

Above: 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 and funding.

One of hundreds of photographs from Local 420’s collection shows hospital workers rallying in 1981 in aneffort to keep Sydenham Hospital in Harlem open. This campaign mobilized thousands of union members.

Nash recalled his first trip to the local’s 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 420’s 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 union’s 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.

Fighting for dignity
The presence of so many people in the room who actually worked to build the union was one source of the event’s 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,” she said.

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. “That’s me!” she exclaimed. The black and white poster captured her in action as she demonstrated alongside others to save the city’s hospitals.

Back in 1968, Locus went to work at Coler-Goldwater Hospital as a Nurse’s 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.

“That’s what we’re all about,” she said. “We’re still fighting to keep the hospitals open.” The struggle to preserve the city’s municipal hospitals is a thread that runs throughout Local 420’s history.

Local 420 President Carmen Charles (l.) with Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives Director Michael Nash, DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts, and Cornell University’s Lois Gray at the opening of Local 420’s 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 city’s 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.

A mighty 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.

The 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 Koch’s 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 city’s 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, it’s been a fight for dignity. Through their union, hospital workers had the opportunity to say, ‘We’re somebody too!”

In search of historical records

The archival records collection of Local 420 spans the years from 1967 to 2002. But the historical record of this important union is still incomplete.

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.

Here’s 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 Wagner LaborArchives.

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: mn46@nyu.edu.

Campaign posters, buttons, photographs, and other memorabilia are all welcome!




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