Debby King • 2021 Honoree

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By Laura R. Meltzer, Activist, Organizer, Staff Member and Alumna of CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies

Debby King is a force to be reckoned with. Her roots in the labor movement are sown deep and span far and wide, including across the oceans—to Ireland. Self-described as a "Jewish girl from the Bronx", Debby is an organizer. With the support of a movement behind her, Debby brought change into the lives of working people and was a key leader in establishing childcare programs through collective bargaining and government support. Organizing during the beginnings of the women's movement in the 1970s, Debby was present with answers to the questions which were raised—questions of identity, and the value of work. Whether in the 1970s, the 1990s, or today—Debby's work is felt and heard.

The fight for pay equity and recognition for care work continues today, and with the needle she threaded over fifty years ago, Debby continues to stitch the path forward. Serving as Senior Advisor at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Debby's focus is in building a strong organization of workers who are amongst the most vulnerable.

What brings someone to change the world, Debby says, is not only by articulating needs, but by mobilizing to achieve them. "No one makes change alone", Debby believes, and while strides have been made, there is still more to be done. Activism is about setting a precedent, after all—putting a stake in the ground. It is about making a statement and challenging the notion of what stands as the status quo. The flag waving in the wind serves as a marker of change—an acknowledgement that there is a cause to stand behind, a flag to align with. The labor movement is flying many flags, signifying the future in bright colors, and endless acronyms and slogans. Yet while the future is uncertain, there is one thing that we can count on always—in solidarity, there is strength. Only with solidarity and collective action will we move to as Debby will say "the vision: a more caring and humane society".


First of all, I want to thank May Chen and Esther Cohen who nominated me for this award.

Unlike some of the other incredible women celebrated this year, I have been recognized several times before for my activism and results which were achieved through the collective action of members and officers of 1199SEIU and other unions. That said, this award is very special to me. Every person (woman) I have worked with on the event has been so dedicated to the mission of supporting women and recognizing that women "have something to say" that should be listened to. That message is such an important one and we still have a way to go before we achieve it. Thank you women of Labor Arts and Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition for working to reinforce the message.

Two of the big lessons from my life are 1) to never give up on fighting for the things you know are right and 2) to recognize that no significant change can be won without many people being prepared to fight for it.

One of my proudest achievements is that when I was Executive Vice President for Collective Bargaining for 1199 (one of the very few women leading large scale labor negotiations) we won the first Childcare Fund financed by employer contributions in the country. Although the President of the Union and I always get credit for that achievement, the employers only agreed to the Fund because there was a threat of a strike if they didn't. I doubt that we would have won the Childcare Fund without that.

When I first began working for 1199, every day when I went to work I saw the large mural on the front of the building with a quote from Frederick Douglas "Without struggle there can be no progress". I internalized that message and have carried it with me through my life.

I hope that my life's work and those of the other honorees have been an inspiration to you to make your voice heard and organize others to fight for change. Good luck—we know you can do it!


Deborah (Debby) King has spent her life organizing workers and fighting for the causes she believes in, starting when she was still a student at the ILR School, working as a union organizer for District 65 during summer vacations. Since then she has served as a leader in 1199SEIU where she led campaigns which established the first multi-employer child care fund in the United States and led negotiations for other ground-breaking programs providing for career advancement, employment security and worker involvement in service delivery and patient care issues. Collaboration was always key. So too was education. A long time labor educator with the Worker Institute of the ILR School, Cornell University, she has since her retirement also been working as the Senior Advisor with the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Some highlights of her work are:

  • Addressing the undervaluation of work done by women as compared with jobs done predominately by men. She was a major leader in a campaign that won $40 million dollars a year in increases for women working for the State of Connecticut in 1990.
  • Advocating for provision of childcare benefits as a union issue. As Executive Vice-President of 1199 she was instrumental in the union proposing and winning funding for the first Taft-Hartley Childcare Fund in the United States. The Fund has provided benefits to over 300,000 children since its inception. Based on that model, Debby has also helped other unions, including the Transport Workers Union and the New York State Nurses Association negotiate similar funds. In 1997, she helped found the New York Union Childcare Coalition which has won over $200 million dollars from NYS to help working families pay for childcare.
  • Debby was one of the founders and co-chair of a coalition which fought for the implementation of paid family leave in New York State. After a 20 year effort the program was won and implemented in 2018.
  • For the last 20 years of her connection with 1199 Debby was Executive Director of a Training and Employment Fund which provided opportunities for thousands of workers to move from service and clerical jobs into technical and professional positions. With Debby's mentorship that program became a model for other healthcare locals in SEIU and employer contributions to funds covering over 600,000 workers have now been negotiated in 11 States.
  • As a woman trade union leader, she has taken a leadership role in supporting the development of other union women. She participated in the first programs of Cornell's Institute for Women at Work and as a teacher at many Summer Schools for Union Women.
  • Debby lived and worked in Ireland where she introduced the Cornell trade union women's leadership program to Irish unions and taught that program and others for both the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. She is a contributing author to the book "Trade Union Women in Nine Countries" edited by ILR Professor Alice Cook. She has continued her ties with the Irish Trade union movement through exchange visits to explore industrial democracy efforts in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.