From racial injustice came a union visionary

Henry Nicholas, in his office in Center City, heads District 1199C of AFSCME. He learned harsh lessons about civil rights before becoming involved in union organizing.
Henry Nicholas, in his office in Center City, heads District 1199C of AFSCME. He learned harsh lessons about civil rights before becoming involved in union organizing. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 04, 2012

In the dirt-floor doorway of a Mississippi sharecropper's home built of logs chinked with Spanish moss, a little boy, no more than 4, clung to his father's leg, terrified.

"At least several times, I observed my father standing in the door when the Ku Klux Klan with hoods on came to get him," said Henry Nicholas, the labor leader. "With me hanging on his leg, he would cock the gun and tell them to make their moves, and he'd stare them down until they rode away.

"That never, ever left me. My father wasn't afraid, but I was. He wasn't scared, but I was scared to death."

Henry Nicholas turned 76 on Friday, three days before Labor Day - a day he, like many of the region's union leaders, plans to spend the holiday at the Philadelphia Labor Day parade.

He will walk with members of his union, AFSCME's District 1199C, which represents sanitation workers, cooks, therapists, nurses, and other health-care workers at many of the city's top hospitals.

Most union leaders have a story - usually it's about a father mining coal, like Richard Trumka, the Villanova law grad who now heads the AFL-CIO, or Liz McElroy, a senior AFL-CIO official in Philadelphia whose father, a social-studies teacher, rose through the ranks to lead the American Federation of Teachers before retiring.

Nicholas' story wasn't formed that way.

His story is the intersection of the labor movement with the civil rights movement - the public one that played out across the nation, and the private one as it pertained to Henry Nicholas, son of a sharecropper.

The marches on Memphis, the rallies in Washington and Harlem, friendships with Stokely Carmichael, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Ralph Abernathy - all of these form the fabric of the story, as did those nighttime visits from the Klan and the everyday indignities experienced by his mother, who wasn't allowed to try on shoes at the department store in town because she was black.

One of 10 children, Nicholas grew up in a small farming community just outside Port Gibson, Miss. - a town on the river that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant declared "too pretty to burn" during the Civil War.

"We were sharecroppers," Nicholas said.

"You got the fourth bale of cotton, you got the fourth bushel of corn, you got the fourth peck of potatoes," he said. "With a big family like ours, you couldn't make it. You were in debt to the farmer-owner for life."

De facto slavery? "No, it was the real deal," he said.

School happened sporadically, in the few months between harvesting and planting.

Nicholas grew up with a determination to be "from" his town and never go back. Like others in his situation, he saw the military as the way out. After his discharge, he found his way to New York, where he landed a job as an attendant at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Nicholas was working there when singer Eddie Fisher was admitted and his violet-eyed wife, movie star Elizabeth Taylor, came to visit. "It was the creme de la creme." That was the plus. The minus was the pay. Hospital workers in those days didn't have to even be paid minimum wage.

"At 72 cents an hour, your take-home pay couldn't hardly take you home," he said.

Nicholas wasn't earning much, but he was earning.

When a union organizer came around to Mount Sinai in 1959, "I was scared to death. There was no unions in Mississippi," Nicholas said. "That's probably why I became the best organizer in the labor movement - because I understand the behavior of employees.

"When you ask them to take risk in the job, they have to feel something to put their signature on a card. They have to believe in you, that you are taking them in the right direction. I advanced that understanding to the highest degree," he said.

By chance, Nicholas had hooked up with a left-leaning union formed by Jewish pharmacists who had a long civil rights history. In the 1930s, the union picketed against discriminatory hiring in Harlem. In 1962, Carmichael, an early activist who helped popularize the "black power" slogan, showed up at an 1199 rally at Beth Israel Hospital in New York.

Nicholas rose through the ranks, and the union continued its affiliation with the civil rights movement. When there were marches, 1199 sent a contingent, and when 1199 needed help organizing public-sector workers in New York, King appealed to then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

Three weeks before King went to Memphis, where he was assassinated on April 3, 1968, he gave a speech to 1199 members in New York.

"I don't consider myself a stranger. I've been with 1199 so many times in the past that I consider myself a fellow 1199-er," he said, adding that when he became discouraged, he thought of 1199. "It gives me renewed courage and vigor to carry on."

After the speech, Nicholas escorted King to his hotel six blocks away.

"As we walked about a block from the hotel, he moved behind me and asked me to move in front and suggested that there were some crazy brothers out there and that he was a target," Nicholas said. "And so without hesitation, I stepped in front of him and marched him to his hotel. It was a position I was willing to accept.

"I understood the fight was connected and there was nothing too great to give to the cause of justice."

That was March 10, 1968. When Nicholas heard that King had been killed, he flew to Memphis and helped organize the silent march of 42,000 people held there in honor of King a few days later.

Nicholas was among the mourners at King's funeral in Atlanta.

A year later, Abernathy, the civil rights leader who had shared King's hotel room in Memphis and who had rushed to his side when King was shot on the balcony, went to jail while helping Nicholas and other 1199 leaders during a 113-day hospital strike in Charleston, S.C.

In 1970, the union sent Nicholas to Pennsylvania to organize hospital workers. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, showed up at rallies for workers at Hahnemann University Hospital and Temple University Hospital, among others.

Nicholas has lived a long time, and his memory is long. Long enough to make sure that in every contract - including those negotiated this summer - that Philadelphia hospitals treat Aug. 28 as a paid holiday.

On Aug. 28, 1972, Norman Rayford, an 1199 official, was shot on a picket line at Eighth and Race Streets.

The "employers or the employees [must] never feel that someone gave them their justice," Nicholas said. "Their justice was earned by someone giving his life for their security."

Nicholas has earned enough money to be able to settle up with Port Gibson on his own terms. Now African Americans govern Port Gibson, but when Nicholas was young, the Claiborne County seat was run by whites.

"I grew up in a serious period where when we went to town on Saturday and if there were a white person walking on the sidewalk, we'd have to get off and walk in the street," Nicholas said.

Or, more frightening, when his father went into the hospital with a leg injury and never came out. Nicholas' brothers told him they believed the Klan paid their father an unwanted, and final, visit at the hospital.

When Nicholas was a youngster, he raked leaves for the town's former mayor, who, Nicholas said, stiffed him for 50 cents. The mayor's home belongs to Nicholas now, with its 17 rooms. No Spanish moss needed.

He and a partner own the Restoration Cafe on Carroll Street. "They sold slaves out of there," he said.

He bought a building owned by a photographer who, Nicholas said, "took pictures of the hangings," along with Lum's Department store, the same place that prohibited his mother from trying on shoes.

Though the past informs the present, it's the present that pays the bills, as union members know.

This summer, Nicholas orchestrated bargaining for contracts at four of Philadelphia's major hospitals and eight local nursing homes - all set to expire at midnight June 30. The 4,725 District 1199C workers involved had already authorized a strike.

With an annual salary of $176,354, Nicholas presides over District 1199C and its 11,358 members, as well as the national union, the 42,565-member National Union of Hospital and Healthcare Employees, a division of AFSCME.

There's drama aplenty in labor negotiations. This summer's round of cliff-hanging bargaining was no exception.

Twenty minutes before midnight on June 30, Nicholas sent word with the mediator that he would be willing to stop the clock.

"I thought only God could do that," quipped Alfred "Fred" D'Angelo, the Jefferson University Hospital lawyer who faced Nicholas across the bargaining table at the Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown hotel.

By the time the clock was stopped, most of the hospitals and all of the nursing homes had resolved their issues - representatives of each hospital and nursing home camped out in a different hotel conference room with Nicholas and the bargaining team circling among them like dancers switching partners at a cotillion, minus the music.

"He has more stamina than anyone I've ever known," said one of the union's lawyers, Gail Lopez-Henriquez. "He can go days without sleep, at full speed ahead."

Jefferson was the only holdout, but both sides finally reached accord at 4:30 a.m. Sunday, no more than 90 minutes before picketing would have started.

"Henry's a gentleman," D'Angelo said. "He is sort of like the maestro.

"If you take a look at what he's achieved over the last 20 years in wages and benefits, it's impressive," he said. "In return, he has the loyalty and devotion of that group."

To watch a video of Henry Nicholas, go to

Reporter Jane Von Bergen will share more stories about Henry Nicholas on her blog at

Contact Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769,, or follow @JaneVonBergen on Twitter. Read her workplace blog at .

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