AFSCME, Local 420, Hospital Workers Records
Language of Materials
AFSCME Local 420 represents a wide range of non-medical personnel in New York City's municipal hospitals and health centers. Among its members are registered and practical nurses, nurses' aides, pharmacy technicians, orderlies, cafeteria staff, clerical assistants and maintenance workers, many of them African-American or Hispanic. The Local has been active in the civil rights movement, in African-American and Hispanic community affairs, in campaigns to oppose privatization and budget cuts in public hospitals, and in securing better pay, benefits and training opportunities for non-professional hospital workers. The collection includes President's Office Files, other officers' files, benefits records, election records, reports, flyers, clippings and publicity materials.
AFSCME, Local 420, Hospital Workers, represents a wide range of non-professional workers employed in the New York City municipal hospitals and health centers. Until the 1950s city hospital workers, many of them black or Hispanic, were among the lowest paid of municipal workers and remained outside the organized labor movement. Registered and practical nurses, aides, orderlies, clerical assistants, laundry workers, maintenance workers and truck drivers often worked in unsanitary even dangerous conditions, under intense pressure. They were often treated disrespectfully by managerial and professional staff, and could be subject to arbitrary firings or transfers and victimization for union activity. Their concerns, when hospital organizing began, were not only with pay, benefits and opportunities for advancement, but also with issues of respect and dignity on the job. The city hospital system, consisting of 21 hospitals spread throughout the five boroughs, each of them a vast complex of wards, clinics and offices, offered daunting obstacles to union organizing. In 1955 the fledgling Local 420, recently consolidated from several older units comprising AFSCME, District Council 37's Joint Board of Hospital Workers, had fewer than 500 members citywide.
AFSCME District Council 37 director Jerry Wurf assigned several dynamic organizers to the Local, with a view to increasing its size and challenging Teamsters Local 237, which was then the most influential union in the city hospital system. Among the key organizers in the early years were Jean Couturier, Harold Staley, James Farmer (soon to become a leading figure in the national civil rights movement) and James Butler. Despite determined opposition from administrators, the Local grew steadily and some basic improvements in working conditions were achieved. By 1964, when Wurf moved to Washington as AFSCME international president, the Local had grown to nearly 5,000 members, while the Teamsters claimed 6,500. New DC 37 head Victor Gotbaum stepped up the drive among hospital workers, and assigned his trusted assistant Lillian Roberts, to the campaign. Roberts, a former nurse's aide who had joined AFSCME in 1946 and honed her skills in the civil rights struggle, was, in the words of historians Bernard and Jewel Bellush, "a rare personality" and "a symbol for black employees, but in particular for the many black women in the city's hospitals." Roberts promised on-the-job training programs to move workers into better-paying jobs, decent treatment from, supervisors, fair grievance procedures and tough and honest collective bargaining. Gotbaum, meanwhile, enlisted the support of A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, George Meany, the New York City Central Labor Council and a number of AFL-CIO union presidents on Local 420's behalf. By the fall of 1965 Gotbaum was ready to take on the Teamsters in a representation election. As the contest for hospital workers' allegiance became for intense and vituperative, Local 420 deployed newspaper ads and radio spots in Spanish and English, biweekly bulletins, door-to-door canvassing at workers' homes, palm cards, buttons, stickers and any other means they could find to reach the workers.
In December 1965 hospital workers voted in the largest representation election New York history, and Local 420 won by a comfortable margin among most categories of employees. The following year the Local, headed by president John Coleman, negotiated an historic agreement with City, providing for pay increases, welfare fund contributions by the City, and a dues check-off. The election gave DC 37 a majority in the hospitals and also among non-uniformed city workers; this success spawned new gains in organizing, and by the end of 1966 the Council represented more than 80,000 city employees. Over the next few years the Local continued to make steady gains through bargaining, but there was continued concern over waste, inefficiency in management, understaffing and deplorable conditions at municipal hospitals, while city officials made more and more concessions to private hospitals. Steady pressure from DC37 blocked plans by the Lindsay administration to lease or fully privatize several hospitals. But this was only the first salvo in what was to become a continuing struggle to defend public hospitals and their unionized employees.
On 1972 James Butler was elected president of Local 420, and immediately took on the battle for better pay, benefits and educational opportunities, and against privatization and hospital closings. Born in Savannah, Georgia and educated in Tampa, Florida, Butler studied at City College in New York, and took a job at Fordham Hospital in 1954. Butler was to lead the Local through the trying times of citywide fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s and on to a period of greatly increased membership (reaching an estimated total of 14,000 in the early 1990s) and influence. He raised the public profile of the Local through rallies, marches, involvement in community affairs and a firm commitment to national, and even international, campaigns for civil rights and human rights. Butler's militant political agenda was furthered by Local officers such as Secretary-Treasurer (from 1984) Kendreth Smith, Executive Vice-President (from 1996) Sarah Kennedy, Vice-President Alejandro Ruiz, Political Action Chairman, James Webb, and many others whose work is reflected in the archival records.
Under Butler's administration the Local developed an effective newspaper, the City Hospital Worker; supported an award-winning choir, the Voices of Local 420; and participated in the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the New York State Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH, the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Labor Committee and other labor and civil rights organizations. The Local became a leading force in ASCME DC37's Hospitals Division and in AFSCME's Health Advisory Committee. Local 420 members traveled to the South to support civil rights and labor struggles, and were central to the campaign to have the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday established as a national holiday.
As a result of the staunch opposition of Local 420 and DC37, the Giuliani administration was prevented from selling off Coney Island, Elmhurst and Queens hospitals, as a first step toward dismantling the city hospital system. Despite the reluctance of other New York labor leaders to confront a popular mayor, President Butler organized rallies, prayer vigils outside homes of city officials, and a "Freedom Bus," which followed the mayor on the senate campaign trail. A landmark court decision blocked the sale of entire facilities, but Giuliani pushed ahead with drastic cutbacks in funding of the Health and Hospitals Corporation, reallocation of Medicaid funds to private hospitals, closures, and privatization of some hospital services, with the result that the Local's membership dropped to 7,500 and the number of municipal hospitals to 11 by 2001. Clashes between Butler and DC37 executive director Stanley Hill meant that the local could no longer count on firm Council backing in negotiations. In the late 1990s dissent began to grow within the Local, as members questioned lavish expenditures by the leadership, a burdensome dues increase, and plans for an expensive new local headquarters that never materialized.
In December local vice-president Carmen Charles, representing the opposition within the local, challenged James Butler for the presidency and won, by a narrow margin. Despite repeated challenges to the election result by the Butler slate and inaction by DC 37, Charles's victory was finally confirmed by AFSCME's national Judicial Panel in May 2002. The new administration has embarked on a program of revitalization and reorganization, aimed at defending the some of the city's most vulnerable municipal workers in the chilly climate of the new millennium.
Bernard and Jewel Bellush, Union Power and New York: Victor Gotbaum and District Council 37(New York: Praeger Publishers, 1984).Dierdre McFadyen, "Butler's Last Stand," City Limits Monthly(on-line), November 2001.Silver Anniversary Celebration of Jim Butler, October 11, 1997 (New York: AFSCME, Local 420, 1997).
Arranged alphabetically by topic within each series.
The files are grouped into 4 series:
- I, President's Office Files (James Butler)
- II, Executive Vice-President's Files
- III, Secretary-Treasurer's Files
- IV, Unprocessed Material
Scope and Content Note
Series I, President's Office Files (James Butler), includes documentation of the Local's relations with District Council 37, with AFSCME, with New York City's Health and Hospitals Corporation; extensive files on membership meetings, health and safety issues, working conditions and grievances at various city hospitals; documentation of the Local's involvement with African-American churches and fraternal organizations and Hispanic community and labor groups; documentation of the Local's participation in civil rights and other human rights campaigns; and records of contacts with Latin-American, Caribbean and African labor organizations and philanthropic campaigns. The series also includes extensive documentation of internal Local affairs, including Executive Board meetings, union elections, political activity, celebrations, choir appearances, President Butler's activities, and Local finances.
Series II: Executive Vice-President's Files, consists mainly of files reflecting the interests and activities of Executive-Vice-President Sarah Kennedy, who was elected to that position in 1996. Kennedy, a nurse at Coney Island Hospital, served as Chapter Chair, as Chair of Local 420's Women's Committee and Chair of the Political Action Committee. She was a Choir member, coordinated the union's Black History Month programs, helped organize the campaign against privatization of Coney Island Hospital and was extremely active in community and church affairs.
Series III, Secretary-Treasurer's Files, consists mainly of records compiled by Secretary-Treasurer Kendreth Smith. Smith, a former Chapter Chair at Fordham Hospital, became Secretary-Treasurer in 1984. The series includes financial records, benefits records, and records relating to issues of concern to members, such as dues, salary-levels, uniform allowances, training programs, and military service credits. It also reflects Smith's political activity within AFSCME and AFSCME District Council 37, and as a member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.
Conditions Governing Access
Series IV: Charles v. Butler Legal Records is closed until September 1, 2024. The remainder of the collection is open for research without restrictions.
Conditions Governing Use
Any rights (including copyright and related rights to publicity and privacy) held by AFSCME, Local 420 were transferred to New York University in 2003 and 2009 by AFSCME, Local 420. Permission to publish or reproduce materials in this collection must be secured from Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archives. Please contact email@example.com, (212) 998-2630.
Published citations should take the following form:
Identification of item, date; Collection name; Collection number; box number; folder number;
Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
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New York, NY 10012, New York University Libraries.
Location of Materials
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Donated by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Local 420, in 2003, under an agreement with Local President Carmen Charles. The accession number associated with this gift is 2004.020.
In 2009, AFSCME, Local 420 sent a gift of records documenting the Charles v. Butler litigation. The accession number associated with this gift is 2009.102.
Photographs, slides and videos from the AFSCME, Local 420 collection have been separated to the Non-Print Department of the Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. (Photographs #212)