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Salima Pace is one of a new generation of union leaders. But why stop at that?

September 9, 2020 Category: FeaturedLongPeople


Correction: Jasmine Sessom's job title and company affiliation was corrected (09/09/20 at 4:16 p.m.)
Faced with the unenviable task of having to confront COVID-19 head-on this summer, members of District 1199C, National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, many of whom are frontline workers, found themselves without adequate personal protective equipment, hazard pay, and, in some cases, remote work opportunities that complied with governmental guidance.

As union spokesperson Ben Waxman told Philadelphia Magazine back in August, local management placed both workers and the communities in which they lived at greater risk for contracting the virus.

But a new generation of union leadership, including newly-elected Secretary-Treasurer Salima Pace, stepped in to protect their members.

“Salima specifically, she called around to all of her connections and all of her political affiliates and everyone she knows in the community and said we need some PPE for our members, we need this we need that,” said Tiffany Patterson, a union representative at District 1199C who’s worked with Pace for two years. “She arranged for us to have caravans to go out to the hospitals, the major ones like CHOP and HUP.”

According to other members, Pace’s work during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic went beyond securing PPE and hazard pay. Charlene Cooper, an employee of Temple University Hospital and close friend and associate of Pace’s, told Generocity that the two of them set up podcasts and Zoom meetings to help on a more personal level.

It was a stressful time for the union. With the help of Cooper, Pace wanted to make sure that members had food, money, and someone with whom they could talk — the latter being crucial, as District 1199C did not experience COVID-19 unscathed.

Despite all the praise for her work during the pandemic, Pace is modest about her accomplishments. She remains haunted by too many ghosts of COVID-19, members struggling to pay bills, members who were on ventilators, and the seven union members who lost their lives to the virus to be able to celebrate any accomplishments right now.

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“As much as we’re reaching out and making connections, sometimes it feels like we’re not doing enough,” Pace told Generocity. “Our members are sacrificing so much.”

The moment calls for empathy, and Pace rises to the occasion, but, as her friends and allies note, she’s a hardscrabble fighter who shouldn’t be taken lightly. Pace is one of the few African-American women to lead a service union in a city dominated by the trades. She’s using her newfound power to redefine the political and philanthropic landscape.

Pace, who happened into the labor movement by accident following a chance meeting with District 1199C members at a baby shower in 2012, studied under the tutelage of the union’s former president and progressive icon Henry Nicholas. She volunteered five days a week, four hours a day, answering phones, making flyers, calculating spreadsheets, and more.

Nicholas, one of the central figures who brought together organized labor and the civil rights movement next to luminaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, and A. Philip Randolph, would regale her with stories of hunger strikes and picket lines.

And, as Pace tells it, he primed her for a future role in the union. “[Nicholas said] I love your spirit and I want you to groom yourself so that you’re ready for leadership,” Pace said.

Under Nicholas’ mentorship, Pace rose quickly through the ranks, from volunteer to administrative assistant to executive assistance and beyond. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Health Administration from Gwynedd Mercy University and a master’s degree in Strategic Design from Philadelphia University.

“She did more than many people would do down at the union hall, and just dealing with her at home stuff, she actually got a degree while she was working there,” Cooper said. “[She] was a single mom … [and] holding a full-time job.”

The new generation of progressives in labor

Pace’s rise up the ranks of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees to the elected position of Secretary-Treasurer at the young age of 34, comes amidst a backdrop of heightened racial tensions due to ongoing police brutality caught on tape over the past few years.

But her arrival on the scene, along with Vice President Elyse Ford and President Chris Woods, both of whom are the same age as Pace, marks a renewed interest in organized labor by younger generations of progressives. Both issues, in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement and worker’s rights, are front and center in local and national politics during the current election cycle.

The political stage makes Pace, Woods, and the rest of District 1199C’s leadership more selective about the people they seek out and the decisions they make. Benefitting labor is their first priority; hence the decision to support Kendra Brooks in last year’s city council race was such an easy one. Brooks, who ran under the Working Families banner, was the first councilmember to win a coveted at-large seat under a third-party ticket. She’s a friend to organized labor and a former member of District 1199C.

Pace and the other members of the union’s leadership learned the hard way that trust doesn’t come easy.

When Hahnemann University Hospital closed last year, it shut down a lifeline to thousands of Philadelphians and stranded hundreds of medical students at Drexel University. The bankruptcy and abrupt demise of Hahnemann was a harsh blow to the union as well.

“[The closure] hit everyone over the head,” Pace said. “We just did not expect this to come, and when it came it came like a speeding bullet.”

“It really opened up our eyes to say, number one, we have to watchdog this a lot better,” she added.

Hahnemann’s closure was a tough loss for the young leadership triumvirate, one that forced them to re-evaluate their organizing relationships. Going forward, Pace says she knows there’s a need to build better political alliances.

Part of that work begins at home, with District 1199C’s Political Action Committee. But to elevate the voices of women of color like Brooks, Pace’s work goes beyond the union hall.

Embodying Black excellence and leadership

Pace sits on the board of She Can Win, an organization dedicated to helping women advance in the political arena. Founded by Jasmine Sessoms, the senior vice president of corporate affairs for Hilco Redevelopment Partners and a member of Gov. Tom Wolf’s Commission for African American Affairs, She Can Win, offers women interested in running for office or working on campaigns nonpartisan training workshops. In addition, the She Can Win PAC invests capital into the campaigns of women of color while the group itself lobbies on behalf of Black and brown women.

Earlier this year, in response to COVID-19, She Can Win launched a giving circle, awarding grants to organizations led by Black women. According to Pace, moving forward with the idea was a “no-brainer.”

“When the notion was brought up to us to become a giving circle,” Pace said, “it was like this is something we have to do.”

Pace’s efforts with both PACs make for smart politics in the civic arena and the labor movement. But, she says, being a Black woman in a leadership role adds another layer of responsibility to her work.

There’s a pressure that comes with having to represent an entire community, said Pace, and she worries if she’s doing enough to “step up.”

For her members, though, she excites confidence and inspiration as a Black woman and a leader. When asked to describe Pace, Cooper quoted Michelle Obama: “Instead of letting your hardship and failures discourage or exhaust you, let them inspire you. Let them make you even hungrier to succeed.”

“[Salima Pace] is an encouragement to a lot of people, she’s a helping hand,” Cooper said.

“If you’re hungry and you tell her you’re hungry she’s going to go to the supermarket and she’s going to get those groceries and drop them off at your house.”

On a larger scale, Pace, along with the whole of District 119C’s leadership, feels the weight of the Black Lives Matter movement. Like Nicholas and so many other members before them, they’ve made civil rights central to their administration. At the behest of Woods, the executive team uses their bully pulpit to stress to the greater community the value of Black lives.

“[Black people] have co-created the fabric of America along with other cultures and … we should be treated the same,” Pace said.

That work comes through with powerful statements denouncing police brutality. But for decades, the service worker’s union played its part and continues to do so through education.

Building the future

In 1974, a collective bargaining agreement between District 1199C created the Training & Upgrading Fund to provide carer pathways in the health and human services field to union members, as well as general education opportunities to the greater Philadelphia community. Located in a 35,000 sq. ft. building called the Breslin Center in Center City, the Fund serves upwards of 4,000 students every year.

Under the leadership of Executive Director Cheryl Feldman, students can earn their degree, take job training courses, study for their GED, or participate in ESL classes. The Fund holds several youth-based programs, too, for people between the ages of 17 and 24.

Feldman said she considers the Fund to be an anchor institution in Philadelphia, one that welcomes young people, immigrants, the unemployed, and more.

“We are one-stop for the area residents and [union] members wanting to pursue careers in healthcare, human services, [and] in early childhood education,” she said. “We try our best not to turn anyone away.”

That mission has held true even during COVID-19. According to Feldman, staff and faculty at the Fund had to quickly figure out how to convert their courses to an online format this year. With a little help, they were able to purchase some Chromebooks and keep classes running for their student body. Today, the Fund offers a combination of online, hybrid, and in-class courses.

“We were able to successfully pivot [to online learning] and make it through a difficult time without missing a heartbeat,” Feldman said. “And that’s attributed to our great staff and our great faculty.

Pace, herself a product of the Fund long before she knew what organized labor was, considers its continued operation nothing short of amazing. Today, she sits on its board of trustees and marvels at the students’ work while praising Feldman’s work.

The original credit for the Fund, however,  goes to Nicholas.

“Henry Nicholas, he would tell anybody, creating 1199C and fighting for workers inside of hospitals is one thing, but creating a training fund was the thing for him — because he speaks about all the time that he was not provided an education,” Pace said. “It was always a mission of his to provide those who may not have an opportunity, an opportunity to train and upgrade themselves.”

Pace said she has watched as people turned their lives around with help from the Fund, sometimes going from addiction and poverty and climbing the ranks from GEDs to master’s degrees. “I look forward to supporting and working to make sure the training fund is around forever,” she said. “It’s an amazing school.”

In addition to stewardship of the Fund, over the next 12 to 24 months the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees will have to face the ever-present threat of COVID-19, a national presidential election in November, and a contract that expires in about 300 days.

And if that weren’t enough to keep her busy, earlier this year Pace was named co-chair of the Maternity Care Coalition, a local nonprofit that focuses on the health and wellbeing of pregnant women, parents, and families in neighborhoods with higher rates of poverty and health disparities. Maternity Care assisted Pace when she was a young mother and needed help. Now, she said, she’s thrilled to have an opportunity to give back.

Asked how she does it all, she offered those who might follow in her footsteps some final words of inspiration.

“[I want] for people not to doubt themselves,” Pace said. “For people to just continue to push, to continue to take opportunities and take risks for the things that you want.”

“And to volunteer.”

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