NEW YORK NURSE: October/November 2008
“I come here this morning with a tender spot in my heart for nurses,” said Henry Nicholas at the Sept. 27 meeting of the NYSNA Congress of Bargaining Unit Leaders. “I’m two days younger than John McCain and I wish nurses occupied both the House and the Senate in Washington, D.C.”
“Nurses play a key role in the delivery of health care in the United States. I’ve been consistent with my vision about nurses. Nurses are special because they carry with them the largest amount of respect of any entity in America. With all that they bring, they could change the world,” continued Nicholas, who has served for 27 years as president of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees (NUHHCE).
Born in Mississippi in 1933, Nicholas has been organizing workers since the 1950s. His early union leadership in Philadelphia included organizing and winning some of the first contracts in the country for hospital and nursing home workers. NUHHCE was founded in 1973, and Nicholas became its second president in 1981. The NUHHCE has grown to 150,000 members and represents workers in all fields of the major health institutions in the Philadelphia area. Nicholas has worked alongside civil rights pioneers such as the late Coretta Scott King.
NYSNA Economic and General Welfare Director Lorraine Seidel, who once worked for Nicholas, called him a kindred soul and mentor. She introduced him as an outspoken advocate for healthcare reform and a “real player in the civil rights movement.” “Henry is the salt of the earth,” she said. “He is not a guy with a pinky ring and an Armani briefcase.”
“Nurses have to be on the front line of the struggle,” Nicholas said. “In this time of great peril in the nation, where do you fit in? What is your role? What do you do when you know that the services you provide are not available to many citizens in your community? We are the richest nation in the world and how many of our people do not have health care? Those with the moral authority to lead this country are nurses.”
“I’ve come here in the rain and all to say, ‘I love nurses,’” Nicholas continued. “I wanted to come, because when I am here, I am among friends. So, let us pray for the dead and work like hell for the living.”
Nicholas continued, “If you understand the economic crisis that we face today, this country is in the greatest peril of any time since the great depression. More than a quarter of a million people have lost their jobs since January. And that number is added to the more than 50 million people in this country without health care. It is very serious. We are 16 trillion dollars in debt. This crisis did not just happen. Someone caused it to happen, and it was not nurses.”
Nicholas decried the system that allows CEOs to get bonuses while average workers are losing their pensions. “Once upon a time there was the Pension Protection Act,” he said. “They’ve stopped guaranteeing and they’ve stopped protecting. This government says if you want a pension, the only guarantee is if you guarantee it yourself. And nothing is guaranteed when the sky is falling. Absolutely nothing.