James Butler was elected AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) Union president of Local 420 in 1972, and immediately took on the battle for better pay, benefits and educational opportunities, and against privatization and hospital closings. Butler studied at City College and worked at Fordham Hospital starting in 1954. He led the Union through the financial crisis in New York City in the 1970s.
Butler raised the public profile of the Local through rallies, marches, involvement in community affairs and a firm commitment to national, and even international, campaigns for civil rights and human rights. The Union, under his leadership, developed the newspaper City Hospital Worker and participated in the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the New York State Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH, the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Labor Committee and other labor and civil rights organizations. The Local became a leading force in ASCME DC37’s Hospitals Division and in AFSCME’s Health Advisory Committee.
The Union, under Butler’s leadership, went up against the Giuliani administration, preventing them from selling off the city hospitals to private interests and undermining the city hospital system. They saved Coney Island, Elmhurst and Queens hospitals going to court against the city. The city did slash the budgets of the hospitals, but they remained city hospitals.
Butler lost re-election as Union president in 2001 after questions were raised about lavish expenditures by the leadership, a burdensome dues increase, and plans for an expensive new local headquarters that never materialized.