Hospital union leader has successor in the wings

Labor leader Henry Nicholas (right) of Phila. hospital worker's union 1199C with his heir apparent, Chris Woods. A boss must "make sure that when he can't lead," Nicholas said, "someone else can."
Labor leader Henry Nicholas (right) of Phila. hospital worker's union 1199C with his heir apparent, Chris Woods. A boss must "make sure that when he can't lead," Nicholas said, "someone else can." (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 06, 2012

Longtime labor leader Henry Nicholas, 76, has no plans to retire and said he's never had a tired day in his life.

"I'm a lucky guy," he said.

Even so, Nicholas has been consciously grooming a successor to lead District 1199C, the 11,358-member hospital workers' union for employees in dozens of the region's nursing homes and most of Philadelphia's major hospitals.

"The character of a leader is to make sure that when he can't lead, someone else can," Nicholas said. "I have an obligation. I have the future of a lot of people in my hand."

The presumptive leader is Christen "Chris" Woods, 28, now an executive vice president in the union.

Woods' purview as head of the union's hospital division includes Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Temple University Hospital, and Hahnemann University Hospital.

Nicholas "couldn't have picked a person who is better fit for the job," said Woods, not entirely modestly.

Nicholas' presidential term expires in March, and Nicholas, a cancer survivor who barely missed any work even when fighting the disease nearly a decade ago, has announced no plans to retire.

Nicholas heads both 1199C, and a national union, the 42,565-member National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, a division of AFSCME.

In June, Nicholas was reelected for a three-year term at the national union. Woods is not in line for that job.

Woods' grandmother, a Hahnemann University Hospital kitchen staff member, who raised him and his sister, served as an 1199C officer. As a child, Woods attended more than his share of union meetings.

Woods "has been with the union since he was a baby," said Nicholas, who began his own union career in his mid-20s.

"He's got it," Nicholas said. "He's a quick learner. He's not ego-driven."

Woods grew up in North Philadelphia and now lives in Manayunk. He graduated from Edinboro University, near Erie, where he majored in sports management.

"My goal was to work for a players' union," he said, sitting in his cluttered office in the ornate Center City mansion that serves as 1199C's headquarters.

"I figured I'd come here, get some experience, find out how labor really works, with contracts and bargaining. I've been here ever since."

He said he has already organized workers at some nursing homes, plus unionized new sets of employees at institutions that already had contracts with 1199C.

The kind of succession planning happening at 1199C is important, but often neglected, said Steven N. Pyser, a human resources professor at Temple University's Fox School of Business.

Longtime leaders of all organizations, Pyser said, "have a whole lot of institutional knowledge," along with many personal connections that can be lost if provisions aren't made.

"I'm a firm believer that you have to grow your talent," he said.

Nicholas apparently agrees, which is why, during the recent set of contract negotiations that involved 4,725 employees at four area hospitals and eight regional nursing homes, Woods became a key figure at the bargaining table.

Union bylaws allow members to run a competing slate against Nicholas, but there has been no apparent opposition. If Nicholas resigns midterm or declines to run again, he could recommend a successor to the union's board.

"It's my will that I'll be around longer than Methuselah," Nicholas said, acknowledging that he can't negotiate a contract to outlive the Bible's oldest character.

"My mother's 96, and I have her DNA," Nicholas said. "I plan to be like her when I grow up."

Dean Habel, a longtime 1199C organizer, said he and others endorsed the idea of a succession plan.

"We know the president [Nicholas], and God forbid anything should happen," he said. "But now we have a good vice president. Young blood. We're going to be all right."


Contact Jane M. Von Bergen at jvonbergen@phillynews.com or 215-854-2769, or follow on Twitter @JaneVonBergen. Read her workplace blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.

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