In the midst of the public and legal controversy surrounding the National Puerto Rican Day Parade, Inc., the annual New York City festivity on June 9 was still a site of solidarity and political activity. This was most evident in the floats and performance art by union and community groups calling for the release of political prisoner Oscar López Rivera.
The floats were of the 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East—who displayed posters containing the name of their SEIU affiliate based in Puerto Rico, the Unión General de Trabajadores/General Union of Workers (UGT)—and the campaign to free Oscar López Rivera, which had representation from the New York Coordinator to free the political prisoner and the National Boricua Human Rights Networks. The 1199SEIU float featured a live band that played the music of Pete ‘El Conde’ Rodríguez while the ‘Free Oscar López Rivera Now!’ float featured performers from the Bombazo Dance Co. inside a makeshift prison cell; both were beautifully adorned with the purple and yellow colors of the union.
Possibly the largest local union in the world, the 1199SEIU is part of the largest labor union in the United States, the Service Employees International Union. After its founding as a pharmacists’ union in 1932, Local 1199 began expanding greatly in the late 1950s as it focused on working with the thousands of Black and Puerto Rican hospital workers in NYC. This organizing campaign led to three thousand hospital workers going on strike for forty-six days in 1959. The result was a victory for Local 1199 and the securing of increased wages and benefits for hospital workers, as well as a sense of respect from the general public. This was followed in 1962 by the introduction of a law extending collective bargaining rights to hospitals by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. As Local 1199 expanded to other states and grew to over 75,000 workers, it entered the Civil Rights movement and joined the fight against segregation in the Deep South. Local 1199 would become the first union to take a stance against the Vietnam War and, in the mid ‘70s, went on to support the United Farm Workers boycotts.
As Local 1199 continued struggling for economic and social justice, its political power and participation increased greatly. A year after Puerto Rico-born Dennis Rivera became the union’s president in 1989, it played a key role in the election of David Dinkins as NYC’s first and so far only African-American mayor. In 1998 Local 1199 joined the more than one million workers of the SEIU, and in 2005 changed its name to 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.
The longest-held political prisoner in the history of the Puerto Rican people, Oscar López Rivera has been the object of a long and persistent campaign seeking an end to his now thirty-two year political incarceration. (For more info on López Rivera, read The Diaspora and Puerto Rico’s Liberation Struggle).
Though the campaign to free López Rivera has been persistent, in recent years and months it has received a considerable increase in support across the globe. 1199SEIU’s solidarity with his campaign during the Puerto Rican Day Parade in NYC is an expression of that. Now seventy-years of age, Oscar was given, to use the words of Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “a veritable death sentence” in early 2011 when he was denied parole and told to return for another hearing in 2023. In order to see Oscar’s release, we must all continue to be active in his campaign. And we must continue to seek the solidarity of and be in solidarity with other movements and organizations, not because it would be in our interests, but because such movements and organizations represent our social, economic, and political concerns as human beings, concerns that Oscar López Rivera fought to address and would want us to fight to address as well.