Interviews & Profiles
1199SEIU President George Gresham Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
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Bob Hennelly
Earlier this year, George Gresham was reelected to his sixth term leading 1199SEIU, the powerful health care workers union with nearly 450,000 members.
Gresham joined the union in 1975 when he was hired as a housekeeper at Presbyterian Hospital. Over the 40-year arc of his career, he has served as an organizer, vice president, executive vice president and secretary-treasurer at the union. He was first elected president in 2007, and 1199SEIU is now the largest health care union in the country.
1199SEIU members were on the front lines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which killed more than 1 million Americans. There hasn’t been a registry that tracked the number of health care workers who died from COVID-19. However, a joint reporting project by the Guardian and Kaiser Health News documented that over 3,600 health care workers died in that first year of COVID-19 when personal protective equipment was in short supply and vaccines had yet to be fully deployed.
Gresham’s union recently hosted the New York City Central Labor Council’s Labor Day breakfast that featured remarks from U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. City & State caught up with Gresham after that gathering, which was closed to the press. 
I heard that you spoke with a lot of passion this morning at the breakfast about how important it was for New York state’s labor establishment to embrace Chris Smalls and his independent Amazon Labor Union despite what might be some generational tensions. Can you expand on that?
We have to remember that we are now in the role of elders and you know a good elder not only gives advice but also sits back and allows the younger, or the apprentice, to learn their way and be patient with them. Sometimes, there’s no question, the youth, because of their militancy and impatience, want to rush the system and we have to expect that. I mean it takes that kind of energy to be willing to take on an organization like Amazon. But (what) we can’t allow is for that to divide us as labor leaders. I would say I don’t know about all of us, but many of us started out the same way. We were impatient. We wanted change and we wanted change right away. We need to remember that because I feel that if the union leaders in New York – which is considered a labor state – don’t support them (the Amazon Labor Union), it’s going to be much harder everywhere else in the country. That makes it all the more important and puts the responsibility on us to support them.
We’ve been through this national trauma of the pandemic and health care workers are still at risk. We still, right now, have no idea how many health care staff and other essential workers died as a consequence of their occupational exposure to COVID-19. Don’t we owe it to those people and their families to get a better handle on the risks that essential workers face so we can reduce the risks going forward?
I think it is absolutely important that we better understand that. This is a lesson I have never seen and hopefully most of us will never see again in our lifetime, but to not get as much detail and information about just what happened, underscores a disrespect for those that lost their lives during this tremendous pandemic that we just came through.
Throughout the country, we have monuments for the casualties of the wars we have fought. Do we need to replicate this for the health care professionals and other essential workers we lost in the fight against COVID-19?
Absolutely. This was the most difficult because this invisible enemy attacked all of us at different times, and I can tell you that I spent a lot of time assuring the workers who were afraid to come into work because they did not want to die. They saw co-workers die. They saw patients die. They did not want to bring that back into their house. They would actually change their clothes in the lobby of their building so they would not infect their families and some even slept in their car. To let this go by without an historical remembrance is wrong.
What are you hearing from your members about long-haul COVID-19 symptoms? There’s a lot of medical research that indicates this is a significant occupational issue.
No doubt. The members go through what they call long COVID, and the long COVID stays with you for a long time. It goes back and forth, and each time it can diminish your ability to work in a positive way.
I know that your union embraces universal health care. Yet, some unions resist the idea because they maintain it will diminish the health care coverage they negotiated for. Could you speak to that?
I feel really bad when I hear my fellow leaders take that position. Everyone in this country deserves to have health care. That should be a human right. We should not worry about if we have Plan A and if it gets reduced to Plan B in order for others to have health care. At 1199, we have always grown up with the idea of universal health care. We will never give that up, and we have A+ plus benefits. If it means A+ goes to A- , or B+, and that means everyone gets health care, we will take it in a New York minute.
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