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Phyllis Willett

#womenshistoryProfilesMarch 2, 2022

Phyllis Willett dedicated her life to social justice work and the labor movement. NUHW would not exist if it weren’t for Phyllis, who volunteered as a one-woman Operations Department after helping to found the union in 2009.  

Born into a politically radical family in Brooklyn, New York, Willett moved to Berkeley in 1963. She became active in the Free Speech Movement and played an integral role in a community of activists who fought for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. She made a career working in unions, finding a home directing the Operations Department at SEIU, Local 250, which grew into SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West. 

Phyllis always went above and beyond in her service to social justice. Colleagues lived in her home during their tough times while she helped others pay rent at a time when NUHW was fighting for survival. 

Inside the office, Phyllis, who always wore a political t-shirt with matching earrings, was a mentor to young organizers and a powerful force within NUHW, intent on keeping our union on the right side of history and true to our ideals of member-driven leadership and full transparency. 

“She could be very tough, very direct, relentless, never compromising on her principles,” said NUHW President Sal Rosselli. “A very forceful person to take you on. On the other hand, she was so compassionate and warm, and had the ability to recognize folks having a tough time and respond with open arms.”

The running joke during NUHW’s early years was Phyllis’ “retirement.” She had a retirement party, but kept working for another five years without pay. 

When she finally did pass the torch shortly before the pandemic started, Phyllis became involved in the Asylum Seeker Sponsorship Project, vetting people who were interested in taking in refugees. “She made friends with people all over the country and would follow up with them,” said Sam McKewen Page, an NUHW organizer who lived with Phyllis during this time. 

One thing Phyllis wasn’t good at was sheltering in place, especially after the murder of George Floyd. “I saw her at every protest, at every action,” Page recalled. “I could find her in her red or black NUHW shirt.”

Phyllis died in July 2021. Her presence is greatly missed and her impassioned spirit lives on in our work.

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