Union Power, Soul Power: The Story of 1199B and Labor’s Search for A Southern Strategy
By Leon Fink
Vol. 5, No. 2, 1983, pp. 9-20
Hospitals are one of the last centers of employment in the United States to be touched by unionization. Efforts to organize hospital workers had barely begun by 1960, and by the end of that decade, few areas outside the biggest metropolitan concentrations on either coast were under union contract. Along the East Coast, the first real breakthrough had been the astounding success of New York’s Local 1199, Retail Drug and Hospital Employees Affiliate of the International Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). In less than ten years (19591968), some thirty thousand workers in the voluntary hospital system of the metropolitan area had organized and raised the minimum weekly wage from twenty-eight to one hundred dollars. Primarily based upon low-skilled, black and Hispanic service workers, Local 1199’s achievement relied on three basic ingredients: a genuine mobilization of the hospital workforce, preparation for a militant and, if necessary, lengthy strike, and finally, a political campaign aimed at arousing support for the workers from the surrounding community, including the ultimate intervention of public officials in favor of a settlement. 1199’s combination of workplace and community mobilization coincided with and directly reflected the rising expectations unleashed by
the civil rights movements among northern blacks. Indeed, union partisans had come to believe that the joining of “union power” and “soul power” had unlocked the secret to a whole new tide of labor organizing among America’s poor and unskilled.
Still, there was cause for skepticism. New York City was, in several respects, peculiarly well-adapted to what had emerged as 1199’s style of crusade-like organizing. Historically, hospital management there had been more tolerant, public officials more liberal, the black community better organized, the state more willing to subsidize social services than elsewhere in the country.
Drawing on an enthusiastic membership, 1199’s leaders–such as President Leon Davis and Director of Organization Elliott Godoff–immigrant Jews who had entered the labor movement as left-wing radicals in the 1930’s, had learned to make the most of their terrain. But could lessons learned in New York be applied elsewhere?
As it happened the first “national’ test of the union power-soul power strategy came in 1969 when a group of hospital workers in Charleston, South Carolina sought 1199’s protection. The formula which had begun to pay rewards in the North suddenly came up against a new antagonist–and one equipped with a time-tested record of resistance to social change. The result–a 113-day strike at the Medical College and Charleston County hospitals leading to approximately one thousand arrests–was one of the most disruptive and bitter labor confrontations since the 1930’s. In the South it stands as a watershed for Dublic sector labor relations.
Union organization in the South as a whole had experienced a precipitous decline since the ill-fated, postwar Operation Dixie (1946-1953). In South Carolina, unionization had never made much of a dent. While the state’s non-agricultural sector included the highest proportion of manufacturing workers in the South, this fact had not rebounded to the benefit of unions. Indeed, during the 1960’s, South Carolina’s percentage of organized workers hovered around seven percent, lowest in the nation. Aside from a cluster of white building trades and railway brotherhoods, its fifty thousand union members were concentrated among black longshoremen l and the black labor force of a dwindling tobacco industry. Anti-unionism was one issue which bound Upcountry industrialists, like the J. P. Stevens Company of the Greenville-Spartanburg area, together with their usual political competitors from Lowcountry Charleston. A statewide business and political consensus reinforced a right-to-work law and an official ban on public employee strikes with an extra, unofficial anti-union vigilance. Even state port authority workers who had possessed a statutory right to collective bargaining since 1962 had not been able to secure official recognition.
The origin of the labor troubles in Charleston may, on one level, be understood as the political climax to postwar economic and social change in the area. At a time when the city of Charleston, on the back of defense, trade and tourist dollars, showed signs of shaking off a long history of stagnation and lethargy, the fruits of recovery trickled down unevenly to the city’s residents. Forty percent of black families in the Charleston area lived below the poverty line according to the 1970 census, with another ten percent living just barely above this measure of modern subsistence. For black women, especially, who, in the period 1950 to 1970, left domestic and farm-related employment for the expanding service sector (in which hospitals formed the core group of employers), expectation and hope for improvement collided with certain realities of the workplace. In addition to a sub-minimum wage of $1.30 an hour, hospital workers, many of whom had. grown up in all-black island communities, daily encountered the residual impact of a racial caste system.
In 1968-69, the Medical College Hospital, presided over since 1964 by Dr. William McCord, son of American missionaries to South Africa, had not one black physician on its staff, not one black student in its School of Nursing. Blacks filled the ranks of low-paid nurses aides and service workers. Never displaying much tolerance for shared decision making in general, administrator McCord’s reaction to the revolt of the hospital workers, when it came, was not surprising. In the midst of the strike for union recognition by black nursing attendants and service workers, McCord exploded that he was “not about to turn a 25 million dollar complex over to a bunch of people who don’t have a grammar school education.”
The hospital’s relation to the community reproduced the social separation apparent among its own work force. Sharp distinctions characterized the care offered private (mainly white) patients vs. non-paying (overwhelmingly black) patients. Bed and waiting room assignments were divided along racial lines. Even the legacy of dual restrooms remained. Certain practices seemed openly to reflect assumptions of black racial inferiority: Black husbands, for example, were not allowed in delivery rooms, while whites were.
The racial subordination perpetuated in the hospitals reflected long-standing social patterns of the surrounding society. South Carolina, with blacks representing forty percent of the population, had not elected a black state” legislator since Reconstruction; indeed, fewer blacks proportionately were registered to vote in South Carolina
than in any other Southern state. And Charleston, where older black males still doffed their caps to white passersby, seemed to fall well within Robert Coles’ characterization of the entire state in 1968: “No southern state can match South Carolina’s ability to resist the claims of Black people without becoming the object of national scorn.”
In Charleston, relative social calm throughout the civil rights era owed its longevity to several factors. Modern-day Charleston patriarchs had committed few of the rhetorical or physical excesses of a Bull Conner in dealing with rising black expectations. Instead, they tended to smother dissent in an appeal to civic unity while maintaining a sure hold on all centers of power in the city, including conciliatory gestures to an elite of ministers, contractor-realtors and funeral home directors within the black community.
By the late 1960s, the Charleston establishment had reason to think that it had effectively weathered the worst years of social unrest. In the 1950s, the city itself had largely been spared agitation as civil rights activists like Esau Jenkins and Septima Clark concentrated their education and voting rights efforts on outlying Johns Island. The city’s only real trouble had come in the 1963 summer desegregation campaign aimed at local merchants. Lunch counter sit-ins, mass demonstrations, and night marches organized by the “Charleston Movement,” including one major confrontation with police, finally led to a non-discriminatory agreement by the city’s major stores. Tensions had evidently eased in the city by the following fall when, following a successful suit by the NAACP and under a court order, eleven black ‘children attended previously all-white public and parochial schools without major incident. Peaceful, if still largely symbolic, integration came to the entire city school system the next year.
The first organizers of the Charleston hospital workers were a small circle of young “black power” advocates grouped loosely around their elder stateman, thirty-seven year old William Saunders who in 1968 was working as a foreman in a local mattress factory. Saunders had come out of the Army after Korea in 1954 determined to change things for his people. His passage through voter registration and integration fights on Johns Island had convinced him that the nonviolent philosophy of the civil rights movement was a “sham.” He openly quarreled with older leaders. “The situation got bad enough,” says Saunders, “until in 1966 or ’67 I was elected to the OEO Commission and a group of black leaders got a petition against me that went to the governor and he would not certify me as an elected commissioner.”
By 1967, Saunders with his Low Country Newsletter represented the voice of rising anger within the black community. Two important influences on him were Malcolm X and SNCC. Saunders hosted SNCC leader Stokley Carmichael on a Christmas visit to the Charleston area in 1967.
Together, Saunders and Black Muslim Otis Robinson fashioned a tight-knit, semi-secret self-defense group complete with code names and weapons. The level of daily fear reached its highpoint in 1968 after the killings of three students at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg and the King assassination. At that point, remembers Saunders, “We all planned to die.”
Community organizing on Johns Island put Saunders in touch with several hospital workers at Medical College Hospital (MCH) including Mary Moultrie, the twenty-six-year-old daughter of a Charleston navy yard worker, who had returned from New York City in 1966. Unhappily, although Moultrie had worked as a licensed practical nurse at Goldwater Memorial Hospital in New York, the MCH would not recognize her credentials and slotted her at the less responsible and lower paid position of nurse’s aide. While Mary Moultrie had worked with Guy Carawan of Tennessee’s Highlander Center and Esau Jenkins on community projects, Saunders was waiting for her and others at the hospital to recognize that “they had a problem” at their own workplace. It did not take long.
In February 1968 a white nursing supervisor gave orders to a group of black workers (three LPNs, two nurses aides) without showing them patient charts. Incensed at this violation of custom, the workers left work and were summarily fired. This incident was ultimately and successfully resolved by the intervention of black community leaders. It represented the beginning of continuous, although still informal, organization among the city’s hospital workers.
Soon, a group of workers began meeting regularly with Otis Robinson and Saunders. “The thing that I think had the biggest impact,” Saunders remembers, “Jesse Jackson used it, James Brown too, we stressed that you are somebody: ‘There’s no such thing as non-professional hospital workers. You are professionals. It takes a surgeon fifteen minutes to operate but you are there twenty-four hours a day with the patient. You are the most important part of the hospital.'”
The idea of a hospital workers “union” emerged slowly. Saunders, for one, initially had “very little interest” in unions. “I saw very little difference,” he says, “between George Meany and Richard Nixon. I felt labor management was ripping off the workers.” Instead, Saunders and friends first envisioned a kind of broadbased association of community owned businesses aimed at getting blacks into the “economic mainstream.”
Mary Moultrie, who had had only distant contact with a union local while at Goldwater Memorial, agrees that “at that time we didn’t have a union in mind to affiliate with or anything like that. We just knew we had to do something to protect our jobs. We didn’t want to be picked off one by one. So we sorta kept it a secret. We’d go round and whisper to people and we’d catch people during break time and on lunch hour. We kept it out of the ears of the whites. After we started having the weekly meetings we used to get community people to come in and meet with us. When the idea for a union came up exactly, I don’t remember. I feel like its a union whenever people get together.”
A key community contact on the way towards formal organization was Isaiah Bennett, president of Local 15A, RWDSU, which represented a few hundred workers at the American Tobacco Company in Charleston. This union beachhead dated to the 1945-46 Food, Tobacco and Allied Workers strike, in which an old spiritual first became the movement song, “We Shall Overcome.” Bennett loaned the hospital workers Local 15A’s meeting hall and activated a network of community support to try to establish some form of representation and airing of grievances for the MCH workers.
Meanwhile, hospital administrators took counter measures, hiring Greenville textile counsel and antiunion specialist, Knox Haynesworth (brother to federal judge Clement Haynesworth, who, later in the year, would receive and fail to be confirmed in a Nixon appointment to the US Supreme Court). The hospital offered to discuss work-related problems only with small groups of workers selected at random. The first official response to the unionization effort came in the form of a crude cartoon picturing a fat, white, union boss enjoying wine, cigars and shapely female company at workers’ expense. To resist the union, the hospital’s administration promised to use “every legal means at our disposal.” The only concession offered the protesting black workers prior to the strike was an extra holiday on Robert E. Lee’s birthday.
In late September or early October, 1968, New York City’s Local 1199 responded with interest to an appeal from the Charleston workers. Only months before, in establishing a National Organizing Committee (NOC), the hospital union had set its sights on territory outside the state of New York and the city’s metropolitan region, “along the Eastern seaboard in the main.”
The turning point in the New York union’s mind was a visit to Charleston by 1199 vice-president and former dietary aide, Doris Turner. She was scheduled to meet with organized workers one evening at the tobacco workers hall. With delays, her plane did not arrive until after midnight. Before she went to her hotel, she decided to stop by the meeting hall just in case someone had remained behind. She found the hall full of Charleston hospital workers.
The national union decided to call its first out-of-state local 1199B. Over four hundred hospital workers elected Mary Moultrie as president of the local, formally replacing Bennett as leader of the organizing campaign.
Once the union made a commitment to the workers to fight for recognition, the struggle at MCH took a more conspicuous turn. Worker delegations besieged local and state lawmakers, protesting vehemently the refusal of the McCord administration to even meet with the employees. While meetings with Gov. McNair, a self-styled South Carolina “progressive,” and key legislators were courteous, no progress was made. In response to what Moultrie would tell Columbia legislators in February, 1969 was an “explosive” situation, state officials could only point to plans for a long-term re-classification of all state jobs that might be completed within a year. “We’re tired of asking and begging. Now we are demanding. We want union recognition,” Moultrie told the legislators. “We warn you time is running out,” added Bennett. But while state officials allowed that the legislature had the power to place the hospitals within the state labor law, no one emerged to champion such an option.
The precipitating event for the strike came on March 18. At the urging of Mayor Palmer Gaillard, McCord agreed to meet with a workers’ delegation that included union members. Seven workers including Moultrie were notified to attend an 11:00 a.m. meeting in the hospital auditorium. When they arrived, however, they found that McCord had selected eight “loyalists” to balance out the meeting. Soon nearly a hundred pro-union workers had packed into the auditorium. An administrative assistant emerged to explain that McCord would meet no groups
larger than fifteen, that the workers were being disruptive so that the session had been adjourned and workers must return immediately to their jobs. Instead, the workers met outside with Bennett, before re-entering the hospital. The next day twelve union activists including Mary Multrie, were formally dismissed for dereliction of duty. One day later, March 20, after consultations between 1199B leaders and national union vice-president Henry Nicholas, the strike began. The strikers made two demands: union recognition and the rehiring of the twelve fired workers.
As picketers massed in front of the MCH entrance, they were immediately faced with a reality which distinguished the Charleston confrontation from any other strike in which the union had so far been engaged. It was not just a rigid hospital administration that the strikers faced but an entire city in which every formal lever of power and influence was overtly hostile to the union effort, The union’s legal problems, for example, began March 21 with a temporary state injunction severely limiting the strikers’ physical presence. The original terms of the injunction banned all picketing, but on the advice of State Circuit Court Judge Clarence Singletary the order was quickly amended. Picketing was limited to ten persons spaced twenty yards apart over a distance of two hundred yards. “According to the injunction,” Mary Moultrie later told rally in Stony Field Stadium, “we could put only five people on this field from goal post to goal post. I think even the governor, as slow as he is, could get through a picket line like that.”
Nor, the union quickly learned, could it expect to mollify the court decisions by the intervention of elected state officials. Governor Robert McNair, though shielded from day tb day direct contact with the Charleston strike, set a simple and straightforward pattern of response: “no agency of the state can be involved with unions.” From this view the strike was seen as a threat to law and order, a provocation which would lead first to the deployment of city police and agents from the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), then to the dispatch of National Guard troops in full riot gear on April 25, and finally to the May 1 state-declared emergency and dusk-to-dawn curfew.
Before the South Carolina Bar Association on May 10, Governor McNair reaffirmed his position: “In a sense this is not a simple test of will or a test of strength. This is a test of our whole governmental system as we have known it in South Carolina.” Judge Singletary, retrospectively, set the context for the state position:
In the 1960s South Carolina was among the leaders in the South in attracting industry and our technical education program . . . and our development board had become a model for other southern states. Our governor and officials were going all over the world seeking industries and one of the inducements, obviously, was productive labor without the labor union problems that other areas of the country were experiencing. So I think that that was one of the reasons that we didn’t want to give up. When I say “we,” I think of the political leadership . . .
Since the anti-union commitments of Southern employers and governmental officials were matters not only of public record but of popular legend, what is perhaps most surprising about the hospital faceoff in Charleston is why a small outside organization like Local 1199 would undertake such an effort.
1199’s support of the Charleston strike was, in fact, based on more than a wing and a prayer. The 1199 stewards recognized that a conventional organizing drive in Charleston was doomed to failure. “The first key decision was to have a strike,” recalls Moe Foner of 1199’s National Organizing Committee. “The second key decision was that this strike could not be won unless it became a national issue. But before you could make it a national issue, it had to be made a labor-civil rights issue. The only way to do that was to create turmoil in Charleston. And the only way to do that was to convince SCLC to come in.”
The decision to enlist the SCLC as co-organizers of the Charleston campaign seems to have been made very early. Despite different backgrounds and areas of operation, history had already brought the two groups to an overlapping set of goals and organizing strategy. The organization of 1 199’s National Organizing Committee in 1968 with Coretta King as presiding chairman, and Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and Andrew Young as signatories, signalled the intention of a close working relationship between the two organizations. Martin Luther King had come to the aid of earlier 1199 hospital campaigns–in 1962 and during the 1965 Bronxville strike. The union, for its part, had frequently endorsed SCLC mobilizations with funds and picketers. On a personal level the bonds of trust between the civil rights and labor organization were secured in the close, longterm friendship of attorney Stanley Levison and Moe Foner. Levison, a former communist, still shadowed by the FBI, for years had served as an advisor to King and Young. With enduring commitments to both the labor and civil rights movement, Levison was as an able go-between, increasing the two organizations uncommon regard for each other.
For the SCLC, the Charleston campaign offered the chance for renewed purpose and strength out of growing internal disarray. The movement which had sprung up from the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and provided the focus for a non-violent direct action approach to civil rights through the mid-1960s had by 1967 already embarked on a new course.
A shift in focus from the statute books and city halls to the marketplace, with its implied class as well as racial analysis of oppression, had hardly solidified when King and SCLC were called to Memphis to support the sanitation worker’s strike. After King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s attempt to renew SCLC’s campaign was set back amidst the mud, indiscipline and generally unfocussed strategy of the Resurrection City encampment in Washington. Organizationally, SCLC was in sad disrepair, internally feuding over Abernathy’s leadership, when the strike in Charleston broke out. Through the mediation of Stanley Levison, Moe Foner made a strong appeal to SCLC to relocate its entire staff and make Charleston its priority battleground. The black leaders of the organization agreed. Andrew Young remembers:
“We had decided that was the next frontier of the civil rights movement before Martin’s death. We began to see that having made significant social and political progress, we’d have to take on the economic question of full employment, of the right to organize, of increasing minimum wage, of guaranteed annual income. Those were things we talked about in ’67, ’68. And what led us into the Poor People’s Campaign was a specific effort to try to call the attention of the nation to the plight of some forty million people who were below the poverty line–many of whom were working. Hospital workers came into the category of the working poor. Now of that forty million, the majority of them were white. And so the Poor People’s Campaign was also the first opportunity we had in a national way to try to reach out, to form a coalition between blacks, Hispanics, American Indian, the trade union movement, and, say, white workers in Appalachia and in the inner cities. It was really an attempt to overcome racial and cultural differences and move into a common economic effort to get our nation to eradicate poverty.
In certain strategic respects, the SCLC approached Charleston as it had Birmingham, Selma, and other places where it had faced a closed fist of opposition. “When you could not get the government to negotiate, either the state government or the local government,” Young recalls, “you had to mobilize the entire community, the churches and the high schools students in a total program of non-cooperation or economic withdrawal. So we had a boycott on Charleston for one hundred days, and we had demonstrations conducted by the high school kids and by and large, we kind of kept the city on edge until they were willing to come around and talk about justice for these hospital workers.”
For the duration of the strike the SCLC made Charleston their main organizing focus. For staff members, Carl Ferris, Andrew Young, James Orange, and Hosea Williams, Charleston became a second home, while Rev. Abernathy also spent considerable time there as the lightning rod for mass mobilization, and Coretta King arrived at carefully selected moments of greatest impact. Once involved, the SCLC drew on a network of several hundred contacts gained through what Young called the “underground work” of the state’s citizenship or voter education schools. To these natural allies the SCLC added an immediate outreach to area churches.
Dave White, sent from Brooklyn by 1199 to be Charleston community relations liaison, recalls the conspicuous shift in focus as the strike became a social movement:
When they came in the first thing they did was to contact all the ministers in the city and start lining ~p churches so we could have mass meetings in the evening. They also contacted ministers and got them to loan us their churches during the day to organize the young people, kids all the way down to around eight and ten years . . . and they organized activities for these
kids, classes where we had lectures on black history. I found out in Charleston that without the church you can’t do a fucking thing. And everything we did was through the church, whether you believed in religion or not.
Entry of SCLC and a command post of civil rights movement strategists had a mixed effect on Charleston events. Undoubtedly, the collective experience and resources gathered there contributed to the success of the campaign, reaching and mobilizing the black community of Charleston as never before. But the outside help came at a certain cost as well. More moderate figures, shy of the projected strategy, tended to be pushed aside.
A number of local figures who would ultimately figure prominently in maintenance and resolution of the strike were alienated early from the actual direction and leadership of events. They were the indigenous leaders who would have to pick up the pieces once the major drama was over. Isaiah Bennett, for example. He had sought to issue a blanket invitation to all civil rights groups to help the strikers, including the NAACP and the Urban League. “I was overruled by 1199. I didn’t know they had a working agreement with SCLC. I had no objection against the SCLC, but, like Martin Luther King, he involved everybody.”
1199 officials saw Bennett as too cautious on community organizing strategy. Not long after the strike began, he was removed from an official role in the campaign, and, although he continued to press for a settlement from the mayor and other local authorities, his activities were watched suspiciously by 1199 organizers.
Directed at once to militant mobilization of the local black community and to the sympathies of an outside, liberal white audience, SCLC’s aim was to force through shame, fear or property loss, some relenting from the official position. As Young put it at the time, “It is only when you create the same kind of crisis in the life of the community as you have in the lives of workers that the community will give in.”
SCLC leaders began their work in Charleston with confidence. Mass marches through the central business corridors started April 21 as Rev. Abernathy promised to “sock it to Charleston” and were repeated at short intervals. Demonstrations were staged in the city’s historic district and at the Old Slave Mart museum. One Saturday morning scores of teenagers dribbled basketballs down King Street, the city’s commercial thoroughfare.
The intensity of the movement grew in late April and May. April ended with ten marches in six days. Abernathy called for a boycott of classes by school children. A May 11 Mother’s Day March, led by Abernathy, Coretta King and Walter Reuther brought out an overwhelmingly black crowd of ten thousand. Finally, on May 24, SCLC escalated an economic boycott of King Street businesses by conducting “shop-ins” in which demonstrators would clog grocery aisles and cash register lines.
The coordinated actions on the ground in Charleston depended above all on the unyielding determination of the strikers themselves. Risking arrest and family hardship day after day, the hospital strikers included some of the most dedicated union women ever encountered in an American labor dispute. Letters from the workers, some written from jail in the waning days of the strike attest to the personal meanings of the struggle. For Mrs. D.P. Heyward the union was “like an oak tree in a petrified forest.” She saw the strike as a matter of getting “all the little people together to decide now or forget forever the hope of becoming a real American citizen.” Lattie Mae Glover, an aide at the Medical College, jailed once, wrote, “I’ve seen sometimes in 1199B meetings and picket-lines Satan comes our way. But appears to me that whenever Satan comes, 1199 B has prepared a way to deal with him.”
Claire G. Brown, obstetrics technician at MCH, had five children, some of whom joined her during two strike-related trips to jail.
It was one of the most exciting, hardest, and important periods of my life. The walking, walking, and more walking. The hours and efforts spent trying to get programs together for mass meetings.
There were days I wanted to cry, I was so depressed, because it seemed that in spite of all the hard work and sweat, that we weren’t accomplishing anything, . . . but 1199 didn’t lie to us, they laid it on the line and let us know just hard it was going to be . . . If felt I was prepared . . . For anything else I know if I could help it, I would never permit myself to be jailed, looking back I know if I had it to do again I would do the same thing.
Alongside the official union campaign, William Saunders’ “black power” group maintained an uneasy yet not insigificant relation to the Charleston events. As an informal confidant of Mary Moultrie, Saunders dispatched an armed “community militia” at strike meetings and demonstrations, while functioning both as an ally of and watchdog on the national strike leadership.
Relationships between the militants and the mass movement leaders were strained throughout. In Saunders’ view the uncontrollable and unpredictable nature of individual acts–no matter how reckless–served as a powerful lever against white authority. Strike organizers, however, took a much dimmer view. At one point they reportedly paid Saunders and his group to maintain basic compliance with strike discipline.
From the beginning, the public image of the strike loomed large in 1199-SCLC thinking. The recipe of press coverage, financial support, and political intervention
that had worked so well in 1199’s successful organizing in New York was now projected at the national level. The worse the picture of the city and state that emerged from the Charleston strike, and the more aid that poured in from the outside, so the union figured, the sooner all parties would reach an acceptable compromise.
Superficially, the strategy had the earmarks of success. While running for weeks as national news, the Charleston strike gathered support both from expected and unexpected sources. Not surprisingly, New York 1199 members were the first to offer significant aid to their Southern counterparts. But help also came from the national labor movement as the AFL-CIO and the fledging UAW-Teamsters Alliance for Labor Action competed as benefactors to the Charleston hospital struggle. Moe Foner would even jest to Andrew Young, “If the labor movement would only split two more ways, well make a profit here.”
The union effort also received a number of political endorsements. Twenty-five congressmen led by New York representative Ed Koch and seventeen senators led by Jacob Javits (R-NY) and Walter Mondale (D-MN) urged federal mediation in this situation which had become “a test of the principle of non-violence at a time when many in America are losing faith in that principle as a strategy for social change.” Indeed, the plight of the Charleston strikers unified northern liberal opinion as did few issues in 1969.
Neither the endurance of the strikers nor the impressive array of outsiders who came to their support swayed the hospital administrators in Charleston or the political officials in Columbia. Six weeks into the conflict, the parties seemed utterly deadlocked.
One, although perhaps not the most important, problem for the union concerned the effectiveness of the work stoppage itself. From the beginning the Charleston strike probably created more trauma for the city than real trouble for the struck institutions. Service at both MCH and County was never severely curtailed. At the beginning of the strike MCH reportedly reduced its patient load from 450 to three hundred beds, while County Hospital also cut back by a half. By the end of the first month of the strike, County had hired some fifty-four replacements, while the Medical College made do with 250 new employees in addition to volunteer labor.
On the political front, as well, the strike was an altogether different matter within the borders of South Carolina than it was on the editorial pages of the Washington Post or New York Times. Never before had the union been so far removed from its influential friends.
Governor McNair, considered by the union as vulnerable to political pressure, simply would not budge on the issue of union recognition. Instead, he tried to avoid it by offering new material benefits to hospital workers. An early June news leak thus hinted that an ongoing review of all state employee relations had decided to recommend a raise in the state minimum wage for public workers from $1.30 per hour to the federal minimum of $1.60. In addition the review promised a serious look at job classifications, holding out the hope to hospital workers of rational readjustment of salaries and work descriptions. In the meantime the state legislators effectively registered their opinion of the strike. In the face of the Charleston school boycott organized by SCLC, the South Carolina House of Representatives on May 29 approved a Senate bill making it unlawful “to encourage or entice a child to stay out of school.” The measure provided for a fine of up to one thousand dollars and a prison term of up to two years, or both, for a first offender.
Such resistance to union demands at the state level had its counterpart in the corporate consensus with which
Charleston community leaders handled the direct blows of the union forces. Relying on the city’s experience with the 1963 sit-ins, Judge Singletary and law enforcement officials used discretion throughout the strike to avoid violent confrontation and property damage. Several times, for example, Singletary overlooked or delayed contempt citations; on principle he kept his rulings to a bare minimum. Chief of Police John F. Conroy, an articulate ex-marine from Niagara Falls, New York, likewise, complemented the judicial approach with a cool, patient approach to the demonstrators. There was no Bull Connor among Charleston officials, thus depriving the SCLC of the issue of unreasonable, indiscriminate force by local lawmen which had energized their campaigns in Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham.
If the local white leadership kept a firm but controlled grip on the strikers, white opinion, except for the lone voice of the Charleston Catholic diocese, grew impassionately anti-union during the disturbance. A resolution of the Charleston County Council (which oversaw County Hospital) thus referred to “the unwarranted strike and unrest foisted on its citizens by a small group of individuals, many of whom are unrelated to this area interested only in their own self-seeking ends.”
For many Charlestonians the assault by the union-civil rights forces on their city cut deeper than issues of trade unionism or civil rights. The message of deliverance and freedom carried by SCLC in its oft-repeated refrains of “I Am Somebody” implicitly castigated the old ways of a city whose very historic mindedness was both its pride and chief economic selling point. Something of the resulting reaction of outrage and hurt was evident in the paid “Letter to Ralph Abernathy”, by a local pastor which appeared in the Charleston News and Courier, May 7;
Remember what you said when you came to Charleston?–about not wanting to see any more historic sites? When you said that I do not think you knew what it could mean to some of our Negro friends…. You have heard of the famous Gardens. Do you think any real connoisseur can walk through one of these gardens without appreciating the know-how and tender care of the Black man that makes it all possible? Have you ever seen the look of pride on the Black man’s face as he watches these tourists admire these gardens? . . . What of the colored Mammy? Could all your speeches and marches ever replace the glow of pride on her face as she watches, day after day, as her little charge grows into a man of importance in the world?
Clearly, the immediate struggle of the hospital workers was projected over a much wider set of issues and symbols. It came to stand on one side for a rebellion against years of white domination and black subservience; on the other side the issue summoned up an almost chauvinistic civic loyalty, an instinctual defense of a way of life.
Within the first two weeks of May, 1199 leaders reluctantly (and privately) reached the conclusion that “we just did not have the cards.” Relying as they were on daily transfusions of outside aid to maintain their operation, the union forces were faced not only with the depletion of their resources in Charleston but growing sacrifices of their commitment to union members back home. The grim reassessment of the Charleston situation was coupled with an equally difficult question: having focused so much energy and attention on Charleston, how now to disentangle themselves without suffering a nationally humiliating defeat? Publicly, the first change in the union’s position came in a hint by organizing director Elliott Godoff on May 15 that the union might compromise its demand for direct recognition in favor of some independent intermediary voice for the hospital workers.
While the union initiative produced no sudden shift from the state’s refusal to negotiate, it was soon combined with an unexpected, outside force to raise the odds on a compromise. The new influence came from the direct intervention of the federal government. Sometime in the latter half of May, union leaders, through contacts with HEW Undersecretary James Farmer and former Undersecretary Ruby Martin, learned that MCH was
being audited under terms of the federal regulations governing the millions of dollars in grants going to the medical complex. On June 4 the strike got perhaps its most important shot in the arm. In addition to citing thirty-seven civil rights violations by the MCH administration, the HEW noncompliance report included in its suggested means of redress the rehiring of the twelve union workers whose dismissal had touched off the strike.
Within ten days of the HEW intervention, the basic pieces were in place to end the Charleston strike. On June 9 the Governor, after cutting the city’s curfew hours in half, publicly accepted the state’s responsibility to comply with the federal guidelines. McCord soon announced his willingness to take back not only the strikers but to rehire (in accord with the HEW request) the twelve fired workers. State and hospital officials, desperate to end the unrest in Charleston but politically constrained from appearing to appease the strikers could now blame the feds for forcing concessions. Meanwhile, the union issue itself might officially be finessed. Without any formal reference to recognition or collective bargaining, the hospital would agree to a new gievance procedure allowing a worker to bring a representative of her own choosing to grievance sessions (i.e. a procedure which could allow for active union delegates). Given solid backing by the workers 1199 (as it had in New York City in 1959) might eventually turn such a deal into a union beachhead. For political officials as well as embattled hospital administrators, the immediate moment, however, counted for more. Behind the scenes hopes rose high in the union camp as the informal signing date of June 12 neared for a real agreement.
Then, only hours before the planned meeting, McCord countermanded his earlier offer to rehire the fired workers. The formula for settlement had worked perfectly, except for one problem. The Federal Government, during the Nixon Administration, was not so immune from political pressures as to allow a free hand to HEW’s civil rights enthusiasts. The Administration, in fact, felt the tug on each side. On the one hand liberal pressure for compromise and settlement of the dispute arose form the second-level administrative staff of the Administrtion. Politically, however the “Southern strategy” of the Nixon Administration looked to a different constituency and was therefore susceptible to different pressures. In this case the heat welling up from a key state and from strategists in Nixon’s narrow 1968 electoral victory could not be ignored. Already, state party chairman, Ray Harris, had made clear that Governor McNair and his fellow Democrats would be held accountable for any waffling on the hospital issue. Then, in a powerful one-two punch on the morning of June 12, Democratic Representative L. Mendel Rivers and Republican Senator Strom Thurmond prevailed upon HEW Secretary Robert Finch to back off the threatened fund cutoff to MCH “pending a personal investigation” once he returned from a planned vacation to the Bahamas. This signal of retreat from Washington effectively let the air out of the Charleston accord. Only hours later, McCord rescinded his pledge to rehire the twelve workers.
Collapse of the projected settlement set off two more weeks of rising tension, including night marches, mass arrests, fire-bombings, and threats to tie up area telephone and transportation arteries. ILA (International Longshoremen) leaders hinted that the longshoremen might close the port of Charleston, while 1199 sympathizers talked opening of spreading the union agitation to the South Carolina textile industry. The tone of the hour was suggested by SCLC aide Hosea Williams at a June 20 rally:
White folks are crazy. White America is insane. We have played around with Charleston long enough. We’re going to march in Charleston tonight or we’re going to die.
Again it fell to Washington to break the impasse. Foner links the final initiative to the behind-the-scenes work of presidential counselor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whom the union leader called on a tip from New York Post editor, James Wechsler. “I [Foner] say, ‘Look, I’m not going to be responsible, but I think you [Moynihan] have’ to know, the night marches are going to continue, and this town is going to burn.’ He says, ‘Thank you and stay in
touch with me.’ ” Through Moynihan’s intervention the White House took advantage of Finch’s holiday absence to transfer authority over the Charleston crisis to Labor Secretary George Shultz. Armed with the renewed threat of a fund cutoff, Schultz, with Mayor Gaillard’s acquiscence, sent mediator William Pierce to Charleston on June 24. Finally, on Friday, June 27, after a tough call invoking the national interest to McCord from White House aide and former state Republican chairman, Harry Dent, the hospital director agreed once again to rehire the twelve fired workers along with the other strikers. At the same time Andrew Young paid a surprise, secret visit to the white nurses at MCH and convinced them to drop their opposition to the return of the strikers, thus removing the last political hurdle to settlement. McCord’s official statement was terse: “We have settled.”
For hospital officials the agreement itself ended the drama. Union leaders, partly because they had been through such wars before, knew better. The union needed a ‘victory,’ not just a stalemate. In the immediate coverage of the strike, they got their triumph. By selectively leaking details of the settlement and putting the best possible interpretation on the official language of settlement, the union salvaged a major public relations victory. As the New York Times noted on June 28, the settlement “appeared to meet the major demands of the hospital workers.” While no mention was made of union recognition or collective bargaining in the settlement, the union pointed to the grievance procedure and proposed credit union as means by which the union might effecively both represent employees through a union grievance committee and achieve some form of dues checkoff. These terms–neither of which were to pan out as predicted–together with worker raises, and rehiring of fired and struck workers were what four hundred jubilant, singing strikers were celebrating the night of the settlement at Zion-Olivet United Presbyterian Church.
With money, militancy, and mirrors 1199 had fought itself out of the Charleston thicket, avoiding disaster saving workers’ jobs and vindicating the determination of their followers. To some local eyes, Rev. Grant’s among them, the Charleston settlement indeed was “more than a compromise. It was a victory.”
Grant notes even more important side-effects of the strike for the community; “it was like a revolution,” black voter registration “shot up like mad” (black representation on the city council, for example, went from one to six delegates in ten years), neighborhoods in Charleston County were partially integrated, “people were forced to take notice of the entire black community.”
In 1970 Herbert U. Fielding, Charleston funeral home director, became the first black elected to the state legislature, while vocal strike supporter, Rev. Robert Woods, would follow a few years later. In addition to some positive changes in labor relations at the hospitals, Saunders, reminiscing in 1979, said that the strike made whites “respect blacks for having organized. They’re a little scared now and will negotiate before situations reach that same level of polarization.”
Next to such “benefits” of the strike, however, must be placed its ultimate failure to organize the Charleston hospital workers into an enduring and recognized union. When one turns to workers, particularly strike militants, the victory in Charleston appears comparatively hollow. At the time of the settlement, many, at least among second-level 1199 staff left the city still convinced that the foundation for a successful union local had indeed been laid. Such confidence proved ill-founded. The Charleston strikers never got their union, or anything close to it. The battle lines remained for three more weeks until County Hospital followed up the MCH settlement practically to the letter, on July 19. After that, the outside support for Charleston hospital campaign all but dried up. The money was gone, the issue had lost its national dramatic appeal, and, perhaps most importantly, the union and SCLC had other priorities. The local leadership around Mary Moultrie, more national spokesperson than organizer in any case, proved unable to maintain difficult grassroots organizing work. The workers had no office of their own and outside help came only intermittently from New York. Lone SCLC staffer, James Orange, turned his attention to other community matters including a city-
wide organizing drive by black sanitation workers. What was worse, long-simmering mistrust and differences among workers burst forth when the real terms of day-today life at work reasserted themselves. Jubilation and celebration quickly turned to bitter recrimination and accusation against Moultrie, against Saunders, against the union itself. Only the hospital administration in this case was able to capitalize on the post-strike wave of disillusionment.
In the months following the strike the MCH administration not only refused to authorize checkoff through the credit union but effectively undermined informal union stewardship through the grievance procedure by limiting the number of times that the same person could serve as the griever’s representative. Mary Moultrie herself, strike heroine, was ultimately voted out as chapter president and withdrew from hospital organizing in discouraged confusion. The unhappy end of her roller-coaster ride into stardom and notoriety with the union was highlighted in a family trip she made to New York City in 1973. With one of her cousins, an 1199 member in New York, Moultrie paid a visit to the attractive new headquarters of the hospital workers union, the Martin Luther King Labor Center. Her cousin led Mary down one hallway at the end of which she encountered a giant, blown-up photograph of herself marching arm in arm with Walter Reuther. Mary left the building without even making her presence known to officials upstairs. Moultrie, in the end, felt, “hurt and disappointed with a lot of people who I had been involved with.” “If I had it to do again I would. But then I’d be careful.”
Beyond the conclusions of the hospital campaign in Charleston–part vindication part defeat–lay the significance of the struggle for hospital workers and 1199 nationally. Here the returns for the union proved much more tangible. In the course of the Charleston campaign the hospital union, before a nation-wide audience, had proved itself willing and able to take on any foe.
Particularly to younger black workers the “union power-soul power” crusade broke down barriers often separating labor and civil rights militancy. If such a strategy won concessions in the heart of the anti-union South, would they not utterly triumph in the urban-industrial North? In the weeks following the Charleston settlement, 1199 organizers confidently set up shop in a half-dozen cities, while in Baltimore the mere threat of “pulling another Charleston” extracted a union recognition agreement from huge and prestigious John Hopkins Medical center.
As Claire Brown declared at the end of the film, “I Am Somebody,” a union-sponsored documentary produced during the Charleston events: “If I didn’t learn but one thing it was that if you are ready and willing to fight for yourself, other folks will be ready and willing to fight for you.” She was right, of course, but the location of the fight often proves to be decisive. For those who look forward to the unionization of the Southern work force, the experience of Claire Brown and her friends leaves two difficult questions–What more is required? What more is possible?
The years since the Charleston dispute have hardly been encouraging ones for the labor movement in general, let alone for those struggling in non-union Southern bastions amid restrictive state legislation. Nevertheless, the Charleston experience may offer a few strategic clues for the future. The Charleston campaign got as far as it did by combining militant community organizing work with available political power levers–in this case the civil rights arm of the federal government. While those particular levers are considerably weaker now than they were in 1969 (and in any case are limited by the demographics of the labor force), the “political” lesson should not be lost. Short of a national “new deal” of labor legislation, the hardline anti-union policy of Southern states must be whittled away both at the workplace and the statehouse. Both “ends” of such an effort require a greater effort form the national unions. Yet, if unions are to take a more active role in Southern community life, then confident talk of a progressive “sunbelt” must come to include a formal voice for the region’s working people.
Leon Fink is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is author of Workingmen’s Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics (University of Illinois Press, 198S). This article was first presented as a talk to the Fourth Southern Labor Studies Conference, Georgia State University in Atlanta, September 30–October 2, 1982. It forms part of a larger history of the hospital workers’ union co-authored by Brian Greenberg to be published by Harvard University Press in 1984. The author gratefully acknowledges the help of Stephen Hoffius and David J. Garrow in his research.