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Portrait of Abe Chatman at podeum
Abe Chatman, date and photographer unknown

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Sidney Hillman Health Center

One of the most important health care struggles in Rochester took place over labor’s efforts to establish its own clinic. In early 1956, as Rochester’s AFL and CIO central labor councils began to seriously discuss merger, they noted that with 60,000 members a merged Rochester AFL-CIO would be “large enough to finance a medical clinic and diagnostic center for union workers and their families.” The Central Trades & Labor Council published articles in Labor News about models including Philadelphia’s AFL medical plan and the Sidney Hillman Health Center in New York City.

The CTLC’s Medical Center Committee met with Abe Chatman, chairman of the Rochester Joint Board of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and other ACWA officers to discuss joint action should a medical center be made a definite part of local labor activity. Former CTLC president Alphonse Capone offered to ask the Wegman Foundation for financial aid to help get such a center started.

By mid-1956 the 13,000 Rochester clothing workers had voted and a majority of their locals approved a local ACWA medical center. The center was enthusiastically endorsed by the Rochester Council of Social Agencies and soon the CTLC Medical Center Committee and the clothing workers’ Joint Board visited the Philadelphia ACWA health clinic.

In 1957 the CTLC agreed to study the feasibility of a labor medical facility that would serve members of all the area’s unions. The co-chairs of the Medical Center Committee attended a Cornell ILR conference in Ithaca on union health programs and union medical clinics already in operation in New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, and a dozen other major industrial areas in the United States.

By 1958 the CTLC was inviting interested affiliates to contact the co-chairs of the Medical Center Committee so they could develop a list and set up an organizational meeting. In May ACWA officers and spokesmen for clothing employers appeared before the Monroe County Medical Society to explain how the proposed Rochester ACWA medical center would operate: it would be in the nature of a clinic housed in a proposed new ACWA headquarters. Abe Chatman revealed that all ACWA members had a stake in the medical plan since their employers had been paying nearly 2% of their wages into the proposed medical center for almost two years.

The issue for the County Medical Society was what kind of services would be provided: while the trustees of the proposed ACWA union-management health center insisted that it must provide “some measure of treatment as well as diagnostic service,” the Society opposed any plan that offered ambulatory medical care. In an effort to allay the Society’s concerns, Dr. William Sawyer (a former Kodak industrial health officer but now a national industrial health consultant for the Machinists and author of the weekly “Live Longer” column in Labor News) agreed to serve as medical consultant on the projected ACWA health clinic plan. Nevertheless, in 1959 the NYS Senate killed legislation passed by the Assembly which would have authorized the health center. Both the union and the clothing industry vowed to continue the fight for a labor health care center.

They were assisted in their struggle by Joe Wilson, chairman of the Board at Xerox, where workers were represented by the ACWA. Wilson’s considerable political clout helped persuade the State legislature to authorize the Health Center. The Sidney Hillman Health Center opened in 1963 in the Medical Arts Building on Alexander Street and provided diagnostic examinations and preventive medicine for ambulatory patients. It served 1200 members during its first four months of operation. Wilson was the chairman of the Center’s board. The Sidney Hillman Center continues today at the UNITE HERE headquarters on East Avenue.