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George Davis and the Turbulent Times of D.C. Area Transit Union—1974-80

16 Mar
George Davis, new president of the transit union: 1974

George R. Davis, ATU Local 689 president 1974-80.

By Craig G. Simpson

George Davis became president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 January 1, 1974  and headed the union during three illegal strikes.

He oversaw the opening of Washington, D.C.’s Metrorail system as well as the early stages of local jurisdictions cutting bus workers’ wages and benefits as they set up replacement bus systems in their counties and cities.

But he also successfully fought to keep a full percentage cost-of-living clause for transit workers and formed a slate that integrated the top officers of the union..

After six years of chaos within the union, he was ousted by a 2-1 margin by a rank-and-file member who had never before held a union office.

As a long-time trade unionist he initially made some good decisions, but at later critical times, he made major errors and continued to compound them one on top of the other.


George R. Davis was elected president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 shortly after the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA, also known as Metro) acquired four private bus companies in 1973.

For six years from 1974-80 Davis was at the helm of the union during one of its most tumultuous periods: workers went on strike on three different occasions, defying union leadership’s directives to return to work and also staging a work-to-the-rule regarding the safety features on a bus.

Davis was a veteran bus operator who started work for D.C. Transit at its Northern garage on 14th Street NW. He was elected shop steward/executive board member and later secretary-treasurer of the union before he challenged incumbent president George Apperson for president in the December 1973 union elections.

Union and company in transition

Transit workers wildcat over Metro takeover: 1973

Members of ATU Local 1131 stage a 1973 wildcat strike over Metro takeover and merger into ATU local 689.

Streetcar service ended in 1962 and the new Metrorail system would not begin opening until 1976—meaning the transit system was an all-bus system when Davis became president. Four private bus companies were bought by Metro in 1973 to create the regional Metrobus system.

The union itself was also in transition. The two independent ATU unions at the private companies in Virginia—Locals 1131 and 1079—were merged into Local 689. A dispute over whether Local 689 or the incumbent Teamsters would represent the Prince George’s garage had just been resolved in the Teamsters’ favor.

Two of the unions, Teamsters Local 922 and ATU Local 1131, had staged wildcat strikes over the issue of that merger into Local 689.

Operator ranks were initially integrated racially in 1955, and by the late 1970s black operators outnumbered white operators—most having fewer than seven years of service.

These times were right on the heels of the militant antiwar and black liberation demonstrations and protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Further, many black veterans, radicalized by their Vietnam War experience, were also entering the workforce.  Employers across the country had begun to take on unions by trying to increase worker productivity and there was a nationwide strike wave that would last the entire decade.

1973 union election

Apperson begins 3rd term as transit union president: 1971

Davis ousted three-term Local 689 president George Apperson in Dec. 1973.

Davis put together a multiracial ticket for the top five union offices in 1973: Harvey Lee of Northern Division for first vice president, James Buckner of Southeastern Division for second vice president, and Rodney Richmond of Bladensburg Division for financial secretary-treasurer–all black men. A candidate who was the incumbent recording secretary, George Delaney, was added to his ticket.

George Apperson succeeded long-time president Walter Bierwagen in 1964 and led the union battle to obtain an exact-fare policy after the shooting death of operator William Talley in 1968 and came close to calling a strike over missed pension payments by company owner O. Roy Chalk in 1970. Apperson was politically connected and served as president of the Washington, D.C. labor council.

Apperson integrated the officer ranks by adding James Shipman, a black bus operator, to his ticket as second vice-president. Shipman left mid-term and was replaced by Richmond. However, these moves were regarded by the black rank and file as token moves. At the time, the second vice president was not full-time and had no duties spelled out in the local bylaws.

Davis attacked Apperson for “spending too much time on Capitol Hill” and not tending to Local 689 affairs.

In the first competitive election since 1951, Davis narrowly prevailed, 1398-1119. His entire slate won and Rodney Richmond became the first black full-time officer of the local union.

1974 strike

Police Clear Metrobus Strikers from Yard Entrance 1974 # 1

Workers at Bladensburg garage attempt to halt a scab bus from leaving the yard in 1974.

Davis faced an immediate challenge as the new Metro management stalled on contract negotiations–the old agreement was due to expire April 30, 1974. At the center of the controversy was a cost-of-living clause that provided for quarterly increases of the same percentage that the consumer price index increased.

The union pointed to language in federal law that prohibits the use of federal funds to diminish the pay or benefits of workers, while WMATA claimed everything would be up for grabs when the contract expired.

Davis called a mass union meeting at the Washington Coliseum on May 1, 1974. It was attended by about 2,000 members who voted to strike beginning May 2nd. The unexpected strike paralyzed the city.

Metro demanded that the union return to work and pointed to the interstate compact that created Metro which provided that “all labor disputes” were subject to arbitration and that strikes were prohibited. Further the WMATA-ATU 689 labor contract language contained a no-strike clause unless the company refused to arbitrate a dispute.

U.S. District Court Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr. issued an injunction against the strike on May 3rd and ordered Davis to make a good faith effort to get the members to return to work. Davis called a mass union meeting that night at the Sheraton Park hotel on Woodley Road NW.

Davis announced that a restraining order had been issued and told the 1,000 or so assembled that, “I hate like hell to tell you this, but you’re going to have to go back to work.” He started to read the injunction, but was interrupted by shouts of “wildcat, wildcat!” and members headed for the doors before he could finish reading the judge’s order.

The following day Judge Smith angrily admonished Davis and told him he never should have used the words, “I hate like hell to tell you…” saying that those words amounted to an endorsement of a continued strike.  The judge then placed a $25,000 per day fine on the union for disobeying his order and threatened to jail Davis if he didn’t get the workers to return.

Return to work

Back to work order from the union and company: 1974

Return to work orders from the union and the company following the judge’s order to arbitrate the issues.

With the strike continuing, Judge Smith ordered WMATA and the union to arbitrate their dispute, including the cost-of-living clause, but told the arbitrators to give “great weight” to union contentions that the cost of living wage escalation could not legally be reduced. Metro offered to resume negotiations if the workers returned.

Near-normal bus service was run on May 7th and at least some union members saw the judge’s order as tantamount to victory.

It seemed like a win for Davis, who had called the initial strike, but many in the rank and file saw his order to return to work as weakness and derided what they perceived to be his fear of going to jail.

Further, Davis did a poor job of publicizing and explaining the judge’s directive on “great weight” and a number of members’ perception was that they went on strike for nothing.

Davis compounded negative feelings about the strike among the members by assessing the rank-and-file to pay the fine that the judge ordered.

Following the strike, Davis quickly negotiated an agreement with the transit authority that kept the cost-of-living clause intact. However, members voted down the agreement—largely over a paltry general wage increase—and the humiliated Davis was forced to go back to the bargaining table.

The second agreement that Davis brought back contained only minor changes, but was approved at the ratification meeting. Nevertheless, there were the beginnings of bitterness toward Davis by a section of the rank-and-file union members.

1975 safety check

ATU Local 689: No Service 1974 # 1

A bus displays a “NO Not in Service” sign with a block number “Local 689.”

The WMATA management sought to increase disciplinary penalties for workers in 1975, including harsher penalties for a number of minor offenses.

Meanwhile, the aging buses that WMATA had purchased from D.C. Transit and the other private companies in 1973 were in deplorable condition.

Basic safety features including horns and speedometers rarely worked. Some buses had no mirror on the right side and there were no convex mirrors to detect a vehicle right beside a bus.

Worse, brakes were often slack, tires were bald, and turn signals and brake lights often didn’t function.

In response to the harsh discipline and unsafe equipment and Metro’s refusal to seriously negotiate over the issues, Davis called a safety check on October 30, 1975. He put the shop stewards in charge at each division to ensure that no bus went out of the garage with safety defects.

Service put out for the morning rush hour that day from Northern and Bladensburg garages–the two largest, along with the small Royal Street garage in Alexandria–was virtually non-existent. Other garages saw delays in getting service on the street. All told about 500 buses out of 1,600 never made it into service.

An individual operator can refuse an unsafe bus, but the union acting together is legally regarded as a “concerted action,” the same as a strike–and strikes by Metro workers had already been found illegal.  WMATA headed to court to get an injunction, but the slowdown was already over.

The direct action was an overwhelming success and WMATA entered serious negotiations and modified its proposed discipline considerably. With the exception of a few disgruntled workers who wanted no change in disciplinary measures whatsoever and a few others who had neglected to fill out the proper paperwork for the day in order to get paid, Davis seemed to finally get a little credit from the rank-and-file workers.

Supplemental rail agreement

D.C. transit union president George Davis: 1978

George Davis in 1978

Davis also led negotiations in 1975 for a supplemental rail agreement to  cover the subway service that wasn’t yet operational. Besides negotiating over classifications, rates of pay, and some work and seniority rules, Davis obtained recognition language that virtually assured that all blue-collar rail workers would be represented by Local 689. Davis thereby settled any question of whether the Teamsters, who retained representation at the Prince George’s bus garage, had any claim on rail work.

Further, he solved much of the problem of disabled bus operators and mechanics. Previously, workers who were physically disqualified from their jobs had been terminated or forced to retire on disability pension if they were eligible—a small sum unless the worker had a lot of service time.

By obtaining language that permitted those disabled workers to take jobs as station attendants (later called managers), Davis enabled many workers to finish their careers as Metro employees.

It was a major victory for Local 689. Davis received little credit for obtaining union recognition for the whole subway system, but the rank and file were reassured by the designation of the station attendant position as one that could be filled by disabled workers.

It seemed as though Davis had perhaps gotten his bearings and was headed for an effective presidency.

Political challenges

Newly elected transit union officers take the oath: 1974

George Davis and Robert Delaney at the union installation of officers in 1974.

After takeover, Metro’s bus deficits began skyrocketing. The four private bus companies combined were running a deficit of about $1 million per year at the time of takeover. By 1975 Metro was running a $50 million per year deficit.

High inflation rates counted for a part of this, new federal regulations another part, unforeseen repairs on the aging buses bought from the private companies, and new, expanded bus service throughout the metropolitan area accounted for nearly all of the shortfall.

However, local political leaders focused on unionized workers’ wages and benefits—particularly the cost-of-living (COLA) clause that provided for quarterly increases of the same percentage rate as inflation in the area.

After Metro failed to modify the cost-of-living clause in the 1974 contract, its sights were set on the upcoming 1976 contract. Local politicians and the three daily newspapers in the D.C. area were beating the drum about eliminating the COLA clause.

Meanwhile, Montgomery County, Maryland began planning to operate its own bus service.

Davis testified at a public hearing against the proposed Ride On service, but unlike his predecessors Apperson and Walter Bierwagen, was only marginally politically involved or connected.

Davis also did not believe in involving the union members in this fight and did not conduct any extensive lobbying or political activity other than his testimony against what would ultimately become county or privately-run bus service in every jurisdiction in the Washington, D.C. area.

Davis also failed to grasp the dangerous effects that public opinion could have on elected leaders, and so he let the increasing attacks on both Metro and the union in the press go unchallenged.

The latter was something that began to loom large with the rank and file membership.

Caucus formed

Action Alliance formed in response to Metro attacks

An agenda from a 1976 union caucus meeting.

The dissatisfaction with Davis’s failure to respond to attacks in the media produced the first organized rank-and-file caucus in 1976.

Management contract proposals were leaked to the union membership by an unknown person(s) and if adopted would have gutted seniority rules, increased the wage progression period to five years, permitted part-time operators, eliminated the cost-of-living clause, and cut back many other pay and benefit provisions.

Not trusting the union officers to lead the fight, a few members from Western, Southeastern and Four Mile garages formed a 20-member group called Metro Employees Action Alliance.

The Alliance put union officials on the spot at union meetings by posing questions such as “I would like to know what the union’s position is regarding the poor, defective, unsafe equipment that we have been driving on the streets….?”

The caucus also raised money, formulated their own proposals for union contract changes, and hired a public relations firm to get the workers’ side of the story into the news media.

Several news features were written and printed in local newspapers as a result of caucus activity, countering some of the negative press.

However, this initial attempt at organization within the union structure fell apart within a few months due to internal dissent. Nevertheless, it spelled trouble for Davis that members were beginning to form their own organization to take on his administration.

Bicentennial

Metro general manager Ted Lutz: 1978 ca.

Metro general manager 1976-79 Ted Lutz.

The celebration of the nation’s 200th birthday was planned for nearly a year before the July 4, 1976 gathering of several hundred thousand on the Washington Monument grounds and on the national mall.

Political leaders in the region agreed to fund special bus service to handle the volume of tourists expected to flood the city in the months leading up to the celebration. On the day itself, those attending the celebration were urged to leave their cars at home and take the special buses provided from fringe parking areas into the city.

The expected crowds of tourists never materialized prior to the celebration and most of the special buses ran empty—meaning an investment of funds that had no return. The local press hammered on this as another barb directed against Metro.

However, on the day of the celebration hundreds of thousands headed downtown heeding officials pleas to use bus service. All went fairly smoothly until the celebration ended with fireworks shortly after 9 p.m.

Metro officials had not coordinated with city officials on how to move several hundred thousand people out of the downtown area quickly. As a result traffic gridlocked and tens of thousands of people were stranded on the national mall until the early hours of the morning.

While there was plenty of blame to go around, Metro took most of the criticism, leading the WMATA board of directors to initiate discussions with a private contractor, ATE, to run the Metrobus system.

Davis was ambivalent about this development, believing the union contract would be honored. Privately he expressed that it might be a good development since labor relations had been somewhat better under the private companies immediately before Metro’s takeover of the buses.

Union members, however, were concerned this was another attack aimed at their wages and benefits, and so disgruntlement with Davis’s leadership grew.

Fortunately for Davis, a new general manager named Ted Lutz was hired and he was an opponent of privatization. Within months after being hired, Lutz made strides toward improving bus service reliability and set goals that were higher than those contained in the ATE proposal.

Lutz told Metro’s board of directors in 1977, “I think we can save money, improve performance and assure an integrated bus rail transit system” by retaining the bus service in-house.

The Metro board of directors ultimately backed Lutz’s approach and Davis was spared what would undoubtedly have been another nail in his coffin.

’76 contract

Transit union president Davis in a happy moment: 1975 ca.

George Davis, right, enjoys a moment of happiness.

Davis went into the 1976 contract negotiations intending to keep the cost-of-living clause intact.

During negotiations, WMATA proposed the use of part-time operators,  believing this would cut costs and arguing that it would prevent local jurisdictions like Montgomery County from taking over Metrobus lines with lower paid workers.

Later during negotiations, they floated the idea of a “suburban rate” (a lower hourly rate) for certain less-productive bus routes as a means of lowering costs.

Davis privately believed that such concessions were necessary to preserve the bargaining unit. However he was fearful of the reaction of the rank and file to any concessions and refused to entertain a modification of the COLA, part-time work, or a suburban rate.

On April 30, 1976, the union invoked arbitration and the matter headed to a three-member panel composed of one union representative, one company representative, and a neutral arbitrator.

When the disputed cost-of-living pay increase came due for the members in the beginning of July 1976 during the arbitration process, Metro didn’t pay it even though the labor agreement between the union and Metro provided that all terms and conditions within the expired contract should remain “undisturbed” while the new agreement was being arbitrated.

Union head and attorneys confer during arbitration: 1976

George Davis (l) confers with union attorneys during an arbitration hearing before Harry Platt in 1976.

However, Davis didn’t challenge the company’s refusal to pay, indicating that the matter would be settled in the contract arbitration.

This seemingly innocuous decision would come back to haunt Davis later in his career.

When the contract arbitration award was announced in late November 1976, the full cost-of-living clause was retained and there were no new provisions for part-time work or a “suburban rate.” There was no general wage increase, but a dental plan was added for the first time. The arbitration award provided for a two-year contract.

However, arbitrator Harry H. Platt ruled that Metro could skip paying the July 1976 COLA payment—one of those that they had not paid in the interim between the nominal expiration of the contract and the arbitration award date.

In the context of the political attacks on the union that were taking place throughout the area, it seemed like a victory for Davis. He said at the time that retention of the COLA “is obviously a victory…we think we deserved it and we kept it.”

Many of the rank-and-file held a different viewpoint. They viewed Davis as responsible for the lost quarterly payment since he did not challenge the issue at the time the payment was due, and they felt the lack of a general wage increase made this a bad contract.

In the end Davis’s victory in keeping the COLA clause produced few rewards for him politically.

’76 union election

Jim Coughlin, Bladensburg shop steward & board member: 1971

Jim Coglin sought to challenge George Davis for president.

The dissatisfaction with Davis led a shop steward/executive board member from the largest bus garage, Bladensburg, to announce his intention to run for president.

James “Jim” Coglin [some spellings were Coughlin] began a series of small meetings with key figures in the union to build support at other facilities.

Coglin came from the same division as Davis’s secretary-treasurer, Rodney Richmond, so it was not clear that Bladensburg’s 1,000 workers would back him in sufficient numbers to overcome Davis’s organization throughout the system.

Coglin was also white and Davis had integrated the top ranks of the union. Nevertheless, Coglin was a serious threat to Davis. But before the nomination meeting was held in November 1976, Coglin died.

Local 689 top officers at their installation: 1977

The five top ATU 689 officers in 1977.

Davis had struck political gold and was re-elected without opposition.

What seemed like good political fortune for Davis was perhaps the opposite. Davis was already distant from the rank and file, rarely venturing into the field. And as a result of Coglin’s death, Davis didn’t campaign and make his case to the members. With hundreds hired within the last few years, many simply didn’t know him.

Ride-On

Black and white version of transit union logo: 1987 ca.

Black and white version of the Local 689 logo.

The first suburban bus system to start running was Montgomery County’s Ride On in March 1975 with two routes. By late 1977 it had taken over some Metrobus routes and had about 30 operators working out of a garage in Brookmont.

Montgomery County Executive James Gleason made clear the reasons for the start-up service in a comment to the Washington Post:

“Our intention is to lower the overall costs to the feeder bus service not only to residents of Montgomery County but elsewhere in the region by running a more efficient service.”

While some savings could be obtained by forgoing federal assistance and related costly disability and safety requirements and by purchasing sub-standard buses, the only place significant savings could occur was in the wages and benefits of operators and mechanics.

Local 689 had not done any real union organizing in many years. The last attempt had been a raid on the Teamsters Union in 1973 at the Prince George’s Metrobus garage that was halted by the International union, which had a “no-raid” agreement with the Teamsters. Prior to that, no one could remember the last organizing attempt.

Craig Simpson, ATU 689 activist and officer: 1982

Craig Simpson as a rank-and-file bus operator in 1982.

The author of this post, Craig Simpson, then a young, 25-year-old rank-and-file operator at Northern Division, had a friend named Marc Miller working at Ride On who was interested in bringing in the union.

Simpson obtained authorization cards from the union office and provided them to Miller. Miller in turn obtained signatures from 28 of the 30 Ride On operators.

The cards were turned into Rodney Richmond, the secretary-treasurer of Local 689. After several weeks Miller kept bugging Simpson about what was going on.

When Simpson went to the union hall at 300 Indiana Avenue NW, Richmond told him that the International said they weren’t interested because it was “small potatoes.”

Union activists could see the writing on the wall. If Montgomery County was successful in lowering wages and benefits for transit workers, the other jurisdictions that made up Metro wouldn’t be far behind—threatening the union’s bargaining power and creating a substandard wage and benefit package that would drag down future contracts with Metro. It was nothing short of a direct assault on transit workers.

Rodney Richmond, first black full-time ATU 689 officer: 1974

Rodney Richmond in 1974 after his election as financial secretary-treasurer of Local 689.

The challenge to organize Ride On was certainly daunting. The operators and mechanics would have to be organized into a union with no collective bargaining rights.

Union resources would have to be spent lobbying on behalf of the Ride On employees, but their union would be toothless without the collective bargaining that would result in a labor agreement.

Obtaining collective bargaining would have required a political effort since Ride 0n was set up using county employees. At the time, the Maryland state legislature informally required a resolution from the county council supporting collective bargaining legislation before they would consider it.

Collective bargaining legislation would also need majority support from the state senators and state representatives elected from the county, according to the informal requirement of the state legislature.

This meant that Local 689 would have to make a political effort without the support of the International union, if it were to pursue an attempt to organize and obtain a labor agreement for the Ride On unit. To put it mildly, politics was not Davis’s strength and no effort was made at that time.

The “small potatoes” that the ATU International cited turned into one of the 20 largest transit systems in the U.S. In 2019 the Ride On system operated 500 buses with over 1,500 operators and support personnel.

The workers are represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1994. While they have made significant gains in wages and benefits, they still lag behind Metro workers in total compensation 45 years after operations began.

Word began to spread about the failure to organize Ride On, compounding Davis’s woes.

’78 safety wildcat strike

SE Metrobus Operators Strike Over Safety

Workers at Southeastern Division, where the young woman who was assaulted worked, mill outside the facility during their wildcat strike.

Bus operator anger over assaults, usually during fare disputes, had been growing while Davis and the union seemingly took no action.

Brazen armed robberies began taking place where one robber would board through the front door of a bus and another through the back and they would rob the driver and every passenger on the bus. Other armed robbers pointed firearms at drivers at the end of the bus line while accomplices sawed off the fareboxes and absconded with them.

As the fear of armed robberies and assaults boiled, a 32-year old female bus operator at Ridge Road and Burns Streets SE was raped by a man with a knife.

Operators didn’t wait for the union to act. A strike began May 18, 1978 at the former Southeastern Bus Garage at Half and M Streets SE and spread throughout the day to the Bladensburg Road NE garage and the Northern Garage at 4615 14th Street NW.

Rev. Jerry Moore, a city council and Metro board of directors member, visited the strikers and promised action by the District to protect drivers. Metro’s general manager put out a letter outlining the steps he would take to address their concerns.

A meeting was organized at an RFK Stadium parking lot that evening. Striking drivers voted to suspend the strike for two weeks on the condition that a settlement was reached on the safety issue.

Committees were set up at most garages that in turn met with council member Moore.

Government, Management & Union Meet With Striking Drivers

D.C. council member Rev. Jerry Moore, Metro GM Ted Lutz, ATU 689 president George Davis and ATU financial secretary Rodney Richmond meet with disgruntled workers the day after a wildcat strike protesting the rape of a female bus operator.

Davis derided the committee saying, “Committees are fine, but they are not going to be there without union representation because 300 people do not represent 5,000.”

Davis, who had taken no previous action to reduce assaults, now wanted to lead. The slap at the 300 referred to those who attended the RFK parking lot meeting and actually produced results.

Moore, Metro and Local 689 officials met with some drivers the day after the strike. Moore also later held a city council hearing on the issue putting further pressure on the company to act.

The strike resulted in increased police patrols on buses (both Metro and District police), a plexiglass shield installed behind the driver, an emergency “panic button,” and repairs to and activation of non-functioning radios on the buses.

Davis, who was nowhere to be seen during the strike, attempted to take credit for the results and was quoted in the Washington Post, “I feel from what I’ve seen that there definitely has been an all-out effort by Metro to live up to its end of the bargain.”

Those active in the strike derided Davis for the blatant attempt to take credit for something that he had little to do with.

’78 Wildcat Over Cost-of-Living

Mechanics Organize Walkout Over Cost of Living

Metro mechanics at Bladensburg heavy overhaul shop make signs on the first day of the July 1978 wildcat strike.

The union and management had not been able to reach an agreement before the contract expired at midnight April 30, 1978 and Davis again invoked arbitration.

Metro workers remembered the previous contract where they had lost one payment of the COLA, and they blamed Davis for not fighting to enforce the contract language that spelled out that all provisions should remain “undisturbed” during arbitration.

Fresh off the wildcat strike over safety on the buses, frustration with the union bubbled over again at a July 18th meeting of Local 689.

Angry over WMATA’s failure to pay the quarterly cost of living (COLA), union members repeatedly demanded that the union hold a strike vote.

Davis pointed out that a strike would be illegal, based on their experience in the 1974 strike, that he was unwilling to lead another illegal strike, and he refused to conduct a strike vote. He was repeatedly shouted down by the members in attendance.

Davis gaveled the meeting closed and left the hall with other officers.  A rump meeting was then held by about 200 members who called for a strike at 10 a.m. the next day.

Few bus operators initially walked off the job, but a large number of mechanics called out sick while others made strike preparations at the Bladensburg overhaul shop. The afternoon Daily News reported that dozens of mechanics had been fired for halting work.

Anger flashed as news of the harsh discipline spread through the Metro system.

The strike spreads

Metrorail Striker at National Airport 1978

A striking worker pickets the Metro station at National Airport: in 1978: “No cost-of-living, No Work, No Reprisals.”

A meeting held at an RFK Stadium parking lot that evening of rank-and-file Metro workers called for a strike to begin at midnight around two demands:  Metro pay the COLA, and amnesty for all strikers.

Workers heeded the strike call on July 20th.  The vast majority of workers at all eight bus garages, including the Prince George’s garage (4421 Southern Ave) represented by the Teamsters, refused to work.  Subway trains, which ran only from Silver Spring to Dupont Circle and from Stadium-Armory to National Airport, were also shut down.

Davis, interviewed at his office by the Washington Post, failed to understand why workers wanted to fight the company and said, “You have employees who are hell-bent on hell-raising. I don’t have the answer to it.”

“A relatively small group is inciting this thing, and they’re getting followers,” Davis said. He added that he agreed with retaining the cost-of-living clause, but he seemingly forgot the lessons of the 1974 strike when he added, “You can’t support a legitimate gripe by illegitimate action.”

The workers held meetings at each reporting location and elected leaders.  In the absence of today’s cell phones and instant messaging, workers held regular meetings of the strike leaders and rank and file at an RFK Stadium parking lot. Pay phone numbers near each facility were exchanged.

William T. Scoggin Jr., an operator from the former Arlington Garage at N. Quincy Street and Wilson Blvd. in Arlington, VA, was elected spokesperson.

Metro responded by temporarily withdrawing discipline and obtaining court injunctions against three individual strikers from Judge Louis Oberdorfer.

But Oberdorfer went beyond listening to the lawyers from Metro and the union. He understood that strikers would listen to neither and appointed two labor lawyers–Charles “Chip” Yablonski (the son of slain reform mineworker president Joe Yablonski) and Charles Booth–to advise him of the strikers’ position and interests.

Future Local 689 president Golash and first woman officer Perrin: 1998

Michael Golash, one of the 1978 strike leaders and a future union president, is shown with Sandra Perrin, the union’s first female executive board member.

The strikers ultimately retained their own attorneys to represent them before Oberdorfer.

On Sunday, July 23 with the strikers holding firm, Oberdorfer ordered WMATA to post a $40,000 per week bond to ensure that the money for the cost of living increase was provided for, ordered expedited arbitration of the COLA dispute, ordered the union and Metro to take increased measures to inform workers their strike was illegal, and threatened to jail strikers who refused his back to work order.

During the hearing under questioning from the judge, Davis denied he attempted to get strikers to return to work by telling them that the cost-of-living issue would be settled by Friday, July 21st.

However, Melvin Brown, one of about 20 striking workers in the courtroom, provided a piece of paper to their counsel.  It was a message to the members over Davis’s signature stating that arbitration of the COLA issue would be completed by July 21st. Davis was caught in a lie in open court and the word spread quickly among the strikers.

Metro Workers Vote to Continue Strike: 1978

Mass meeting at RFK stadium where William Scoggin (with microphone) is replaced by Eugene Ray (just to the left of Scoggin) as strike leader.

A mass meeting was held that Sunday evening at an RFK Stadium parking lot attracting about 400 strikers—a relatively small number.  Scoggin urged a return to work, advising that the workers had won as much as they were going to win.

However, other speakers, including future union president Michael “Mike” Golash, urged a continuation of the strike until amnesty was granted. The television cameras were rolling when Golash came to the microphone and shouted, “Strike, strike, strike!”

In a voice vote, Scoggin was replaced as spokesperson by Eugene Ray, a bus operator from the 4-Mile Run yard located at 3501 S. Glebe Road in Arlington, VA.

On July 24, WMATA responded by re-opening the Metrorail system with supervisors and a few workers who crossed picket lines.  Scoggin’s Arlington Division went back to work along with a few scattered operators at other Divisions.  Management began circulating false rumors that other locations were already back to work.

Hindered by lack of communications, the strikers began to waver and by the afternoon of Tuesday, July 25, service was restored to normal as one location after another returned to work en-masse.

Strike aftermath

Discipline, but no termination for wildcat strikers: 1978

The arbitration award that reinstated four strike leaders with a lengthy suspension without pay.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Flannery fined three individual members for contempt of court for their roles in the strike.  WMATA fired eight strikers, suspended 86 for 1-9 days without pay and reprimanded 54.

The union took the disciplinary cases to arbitration, although it was reportedly a close vote by the executive board as to whether to arbitrate or drop the grievances with Davis in favor of arbitration.

Discipline was ultimately reduced for many who filed grievances through the union, including seven strikers whose terminations were reduced to long suspensions without pay–largely because WMATA had failed to notify employees after two previous strikes that they could be terminated for walkouts.  One fired striker, who did not file a grievance, was not reinstated.

Other than the discipline, the strike ended much as the 1974 strike with a federal judge giving a strong indication of the preferred outcome.  By ordering expedited arbitration of the disputed cost of living payment and having the disputed money put in escrow, Judge Oberdorfer all but assured the strikers of victory on the COLA issue.

Davis acknowledged after the strike that the union needed to implement reforms saying, “There are going to have to be some changes made…better lines of communications with its members.” He told a Post reporter that he was uncertain whether he would seek re-election.

“Undisturbed” arbitration

Labor arbitrator Richard Bloch: 1978 ca.

Labor arbitrator Richard Bloch in April 1979..

The outcome of the expedited arbitration of the disputed COLA payment was announced August 3, 1978—a little over a week after the strike ended–and proved Davis wrong and the members right.

Arbitrator Richard Bloch ruled that the failure of WMATA to pay the quarterly cost-of-living for the pay period ending July 1, 1978 “resulted in a substantial ‘disturbance’ of existing conditions and, therefore, is a contract violation.”

Scoggins, the deposed strike leader, told the Washington Post, “We’re very pleased…It’s what we expected. The union leadership allowed Metro to get away” without paying the cost-of-living increase.

Another Washington Post news analysis published after the strike found that the union leadership was out of touch with its members.

Douglas Feaver wrote that Davis “cannot remember the last time he was out to visit the union membership in one of the 18 garages and yards the in the areas vast bus and subway network.”

He reported that Davis spoke of the membership prior to the COLA strike, “I can’t control ‘em; I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

’78 contract arbitration

Davis celebrates second term as ATU 689 president: 1977

George Davis, shown in a 1977 photo, took the blame for the introduction of part-time work.

On August 30, 1978, the arbitration of major contract issues was completed with very mixed news for Davis and the union members.

The COLA clause was retained in full, but the panel ruled that Metro could begin hiring up to 10 percent part-time operators with no benefits or seniority.

Part-time work in the transit industry is not really part time. It’s underpaid full time. A person must work the morning and evening rush hour with four to six hours off in between. The length of their day is between 12 and 15 hours, meaning that employment elsewhere is nearly impossible.

The pay hours ranged from 5 to 6 hours per day with no sick leave, holiday pay, vacation, bereavement leave, health insurance or pension benefits.

WMATA believed that part-time employment would save them money, but after more than 30 years of experimentation they found it less costly to hire full time because they could hire more stable, reliable operators.

It was an open secret that Davis favored making concessions to forestall the creation of more suburban bus companies. So while it was a neutral arbitrator who ordered part-time work, Davis and “the union” got the much of the blame from the membership.

New caucuses formed

Caucus denounces union leadership following strike: 1978

At least two rank-and-file caucuses were active following the 1978 COLA strike.

Two organized caucuses flourished in the wake of the 1978 cost-of-living strike.

One was organized as Metro C.A.R (Committee Against Racism), led by Golash.

The other was organized by some of the strike leaders and supporters at a number of garages and shops and was called the Metro Workers Rank and File Action Caucus.

Both caucuses focused their ire on two union officers, George Davis and Rodney Richmond.

In a newsletter issued after the strike, Metro C.A.R. wrote, “First of all, we should oust sellout George Davis who once again showed his true colors (yellow) during the strike.”

The Action Caucus wrote in their newsletter, “When Rodney Richmond announced the contract terms at the special union meeting August 30th at Constitution Hall, he attacked the recent wildcat strike. He stated that arbitration was the best way to resolve disputes and defended the part-time provision, saying that if we didn’t allow part-timers then Ride On type outfits would be set up everywhere…This no-win strategy of our top elected officials must go.”

Richmond’s and Davis’s position was ultimately proved wrong as part-time work expanded to 15 percent and the COLA clause was eliminated in the 1980s at the same time as private low-wage bus service expanded rapidly in the suburban jurisdictions.

Both caucuses continued to attack the union administration and Metro up to the union elections scheduled for December, 1979.

The Metro C.A.R. caucus pressed for strike preparations for the next contract and advocated against white supremacy and against imperialist war, among other issues.

The Action Caucus held a fundraiser for workers fired during the strike, proposed more democratic bylaw changes, and investigated the union’s finances.

The 5-member investigating committee released a 7-page report in October, 1979, just two months before the union election, that found:

“For the year 1978 thousands of dollars were spent for which there is no supporting documentation…In short it is our finding that the Local has been run like a Mom and Pop grocery store rather than an institution with a budget of over $800,000 which is accountable to 4,500 members.”

The committee’s financial investigation just piled on to Davis’s and Richmond’s woes.

1980 union election

Charles Boswell, one-term ATU Local 689 president: 1980

A close associate of William Scoggin, Charles Boswell, announced he would run for president after Scoggin died.

Scoggin, the former strike leader, announced early that he would take on Davis. Walter Tucker, a bus operator at Northern Division was another strong candidate who announced his intention to run for president. Tucker had been the first black shop steward/executive board member when he was elected in 1970.

Others who would announce included Golash, who had urged members not to return to work during the strike; Ray, the strike leader who replaced Scoggin; George Goodwin, another strike leader; Thomas Toomer, a Bladensburg operator; and Will Dietrich, a gadfly from Western Division.

The 55-year-old Scoggin, viewed as a pro-strike moderate, was clearly the strongest candidate to challenge Davis, but once again lightning struck for Davis, and Scoggin died prior to nomination.

A compatriot of Scoggin at Arlington garage, Charles Boswell, entered the race in his place.

As the Local 689 election committee reviewed the records of candidates in November, 1979 after nominations, it disqualified a number of office-seekers.

The local bylaws at the time required attendance at six union meetings per year each year for a two-year period prior to nomination (but including the nomination meeting).

They also required “continuous” union membership for the two-year period prior to nomination, which meant paying your dues prior to being “suspended” from membership. Suspension occurred automatically when someone was two months in arrears in their dues.

Walter Tucker, first black board member of ATU 689: 1971

Walter Tucker, the first black voting member of the union’s executive board was disqualified in his attempt to run for president.

Among those disqualified was Tucker, who had been on workmen’s compensation and neglected to pay his union dues while he was off work. Davis probably thought he’d struck gold again—two of his strongest opponents were out of the race.

Other candidates who were disqualified, including George Goodwin, went to court and obtained  a quick settlement because of their individual circumstances to place them on the ballot and postpone the election a month until January 9th with a runoff to be held January 16, 1980 in instances where no candidate received 50 percent plus one of the vote.

Davis held a strong organizational advantage because the shop stewards in each location were largely backing him, whereas other candidates struggled to identify workers trusted by co-workers in each location who could push their candidacy.

Things started off badly for Davis on election day. When the polls opened at 6 a.m. workers at Southeastern gathered in a group of about 20 and shouted “Davis and Richmond have to go” in front of dozens of other operators. There was no response from Davis supporters.

When the polls closed at 6:00 p.m. the results were brought to the union hall on New Jersey Avenue and Davis still had some hope. When the results were tallied, Davis led the pack with 977 votes or 31 percent of the vote. Charles Boswell, the substitute for the deceased Scoggins, trailed with 740 or 24 percent of the vote.

Under the union’s bylaws at that time it meant a run-off would be held the following week. Things didn’t start out on election day much better for Davis. At Northern Division, a member of Davis’s ticket, Harvey Lee, quit handing out his literature at 7 a.m. as operators tore up Davis’s palm cards and threw them on the floor. Thereafter Lee only handed out his own cards for the next 11 hours of voting.

When the runoff votes were tallied, Davis actually lost votes. Boswell, with absolutely no union experience, handily defeated him 2196-969.

Richmond, a relatively young and bright rising star, was tarnished by his close association with Davis and lost his election as Secretary-Treasurer as well by a 2-1 margin to another rank-and-file member who never held any union office–not even shop steward.

Congratulations to first black ATU 689 recording secretary: 1977

International ATU VP Walter Bierwagen congratulates James “Tommy” Thomas, Jr. in January 1977 on his election as recording secretary.

The only top officer candidate who survived the tidal wave was Recording Secretary James M. Thomas Jr.

During his 3-year term as the recording secretary, Thomas fielded phone calls from members and worked to solve their problems over the phone. He also made regular visits to work locations before and after his office hours at the union hall.  Further, Thomas was politically active in his home state of Virginia. He would go on to win five terms as president from 1983 to 1997.

During the 1980 election, two Action Caucus members won board seats and Metro C.A.R. won one board seat out of the 15 seats available. Allies of the Action Caucus on the Unity Slate, formed to support Tucker’s candidacy, won two of the top five positions: secretary-treasurer and second vice president and also won two additional board seats.

Metro Workers Rank and File Action Caucus – 1978-80

Action Caucus members running for shop steward in 1980.

Action Caucus members would play key roles in the union in the years to come. Maurice Waller served as shop steward/executive board member from Northern Division for about 10 years; Phillip Mayo served as shop steward/executive board member from Montgomery Division for three terms, and also as an appointed business agent; Harold Hume served as shop steward from Bladensburg Shop for two terms; James Bynum served as shop steward from both the maintenance department and later among station managers, and as 2nd vice president. Craig Simpson was elected to four terms as shop steward/board member at Northern Division, serving for about 10 ½ years, as an appointed business agent for 4 ½ of those years, and as financial secretary-treasurer for about 7 ½ years.

Mike Golash from the Metro C.A.R. caucus served as shop steward/executive board member from Northern Division, financial secretary-treasurer, and as president. Gary Young served as a shop steward/executive board member for maintenance.

Afterward

Two union presidents at new transit hall: 1990

James M. “Tommy” Thomas, Jr. (left) and James “Jimmy” LaSala outside the Local 689 headquarters under construction in 1989.

Davis retired after his defeat, living in Hyattsville, Md. He remained active with the Local 689 retirees group, ultimately being elected president. However he remained bitter about his defeat and felt betrayed by those around him and refused to entertain any talk of union politics thereafter.

He is believed to have died sometime in the late 1990s without fanfare.

Richmond made a comeback. He went back to work as a bus operator at Bladensburg garage and rebuilt his base. He ran for president of the union in December 1982 against Boswell but both were defeated by James M. Thomas Jr.

Congrats to First DC Transit Union African American Officer: 1974

Rodney Richmond becomes the first black full-time Local 689 officer in 1973. Here he is shaking hands with former president and then international Vice President Walter Bierwagen at the 689 officers’ installation.

However, Richmond had support at Bladensburg and a few other locations. Instead of continuing to try to run for a top office, Richmond went back and ran for shop steward/executive board member at Bladensburg in the following election and won.

He was poised to run against Thomas again for president, but Thomas instead obtained the support of ATU International President James LaSala and offered Richmond an International vice president position. Richmond accepted and was elected at the convention that followed.

He continued to serve as ATU International vice president until his retirement and in 2020 lives in New Orleans, LA.

Davis’ replacement Charles Boswell, who had no previous union experience, was a fish out of water and struggled throughout his three-year term.

Boswell had never been late to work in his career nor received a disciplinary violation and as a result was insensitive to disciplinary issues. He was unable to relate to the new workers who had defiant attitudes toward management.

Boswell compounded his problems by appointing people with little to no union experience to key positions.

He too tried to run the union from the office and met with the same fate as Davis. Thomas, the sole survivor of the Davis-Richmond era, defeated Boswell handily for president in December, 1982. Thomas went on to serve for 15 years as the union’s first black president.

Discussion

Transit union thanks riders for accepting exact fare: 1968

An advertisement in the Washington Post signed by George Apperson thanking the public for accepting exact fare and political and religious leaders for their help in settling the issue.

It was almost pre-ordained for things to end badly for George Davis. He campaigned against his predecessor George Apperson for spending too much time on politics.

From the beginning, he failed to understand that the new Metro was composed of political representatives from Washington, D.C. and the surrounding counties and engaging in politics was paramount.

Even in the days of private companies, politics were overriding—the union settled a two-month 1955 strike and forced owner Louis Wolfson to sell the company by engaging in political action.

The political pressure after the murder of operator James Talley in 1968 forced the D.C. Transit Company to adopt exact fare—the first company in the nation to do so.

Davis’s predecessor Apperson also used political pressure in 1970 to force D.C. Transit owner O. Roy Chalk to bring his payments to the workers’ pension plan up to date.

It’s not that Davis failed to engage in any political activity. He regularly attended hearings on anti-union bills and testified. Bierwagen would accompany him to meet with pro-labor legislators whom he expected to carry the ball for the union, though they had many other issues to deal with. Davis would also dole out some political donations at election time.

But this minimal level of activity was insufficient for the forces arrayed against him and he did not rise to the challenge.

Union head calls strike vote over missed pension payments: 1970

George Apperson, Local 689 president 1964-73.

Davis also compounded his initial error of eschewing intense political action by failing to learn the lessons of the strike he led in 1974 and the slow-down he led in 1975. Both of those direct action work stoppages resulted in victory for the union, but Davis rejected the tactic (or even threatening them) thereafter.

The authorities condemn the use of illegal strikes and other direct action tactics and utilize the courts to try to break them. But many workers see labor laws as unjust and favoring the employers and don’t feel bound to obey them. Attempting to defend workers’ rights solely by using legal means often leads to defeat.

Davis’s rejection of outlawed tactics after 1975 would haunt him in 1978 when without his leadership the rank and file staged two strikes that led to improvements in safety and a payment of the cost-of-living clause under the “undisturbed” language of the contract.

He made a major error in judgment when he failed to attempt to organize the Ride On workers at an early juncture. Workers in the region are plagued 45 years later with substandard wages and benefits on transit operated by every jurisdiction that makes up the WMATA service area.

The issue of making concessions in union contracts is controversial among the members. However, it’s really a matter of fighting the company with all the tools at your disposal—direct action, mobilization of members, political involvement, lobbying, public relations, organizing—before making decisions about tactical moves in contract negotiations.

If you are able to defeat the company’s or others’ adverse action, so be it. However, if the forces against you are stronger than yours, then concessions may be necessary to preserve the bargaining unit as a fighting force and live to fight another day.

Transit union president George R. Davis: 1979

George Davis at WMATA headquarters in 1979.

The problem with Davis’s actions is that he did not use all the tools at his disposal to fight the company, the political attacks and the threat of non-union bus companies. Nor did he have fortitude to make concessionary agreements to forestall hostile action against the union and risk rank-and-file ire. It was the worst of both worlds.

He might have personally survived these major errors as president for a bit longer if he had made his case to the rank and file with regular visits to work locations.

Davis didn’t understand the changes in the workforce that were taking place. Workers in the 1970s were radicalized by the experiences of the 1960s and Davis was far removed from those struggles.

But by his own admission, he rarely spent time talking to the members where they worked. Perhaps if he had, he might have gained greater insight into their thinking and altered his own decision-making. You can’t lead union members from the union office.

It was somewhat of a tragedy for a man who spent his life trying to better the lot of workers but who ended up on the wrong side of the fight. But he repeatedly made bad choices and paid the price.

Local 689 revives the strike tactic after 40 years: 2019

Workers on strike against the substandard wages and benefits of a private Metrobus contractor in 2019.

The union revived the strike tactic in 2018-19 by staging a series of mini-job actions, primarily against Metro’s refusal to seriously negotiate over disciplinary policies. These actions culminated in a strike vote by the whole membership, after which WMATA began to engage in serious negotiations.

The transit union today is confronting head-on the challenges that privatization of transit in the area brought. A strike at Metro’s privatized Cinder Bed Road division led Metro to agree to bring the work back in-house and cancel plans to privatize the Dulles Metrorail yard.

ATU ultimately engaged in organizing the private companies in the jurisdictions that make up Metro, staging a strike in 2019 at three Fairfax Connector garages. They have organized D.C. streetcar and Circulator buses and the Alexandria DASH system as well as a number of paratransit companies.

Politics is now part and parcel of ATU Local 689’s activities and they are well known in every jurisdiction, both for lobbying and for electoral work. And Local 689 regularly attempts to turn out members for actions.

Personal Notes

Longtime union activist pushes MoCo minimum wage: 2013

Craig Simpson speaking on behalf of UFCW Local 400 at a Montgomery County, Md. minimum wage rally in 2013.

I was a young headstrong bus operator during Davis’s tenure and was a member at age 25 of the Metro Employees Action Alliance in 1976 and later the Metro Workers Rank and File Action Caucus 1978-80.

I was convinced that Davis was a sellout and the “Davis-Richmond clique” needed to go.

It was the beginning of my political involvement in the union that would result in 18 years on the union executive board beginning in 1983 before I retired in 2001–serving as shop steward/executive board member, appointed business agent and secretary-treasurer of Local 689.

As the years went by I took a more nuanced view of  George Davis.

He was trained in business unionism that emphasized grievance handling and contract negotiation and de-emphasized member mobilization for direct action, political action and organizing.

While he was a dedicated trade unionists and could be proud of the work he did maintaining the cost-of-living clause, obtaining the supplemental rail agreement and integrating the ranks of the top officers of the union, he made too many wrong decisions and failed to use all the tools at his disposal during the period 1974-80.

After I retired from Metro with 27 years of service in early 2001, I went on to do contract work for the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, Progressive Maryland, ATU Local 689 and Maryland Commons. I obtained my degree in labor studies from the National Labor College and I finished my career as executive director of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400 from 2013-2016. I now administrate and write blog posts and photo descriptions for the Washington Area Spark websites.

Sources

Sources include documents of the Metro Employees Action Alliance, Metro Workers Rank and File Action Caucus and Metro Committee Against Racism (CAR), Local 689 newsletters, the Washington Post, the Washington Star, and the personal recollections of the author.

Related Blog Posts

The D.C. black liberation movement seen through the life of Reginald H. Booker [January 28, 2020 by Craig G. Simpson] The author takes you through the long activist career of D.C. black nationalist Reginald Booker who led the fight against new freeways in the city, for public takeover of the private D.C. Transit, for building the Metrorail system, for hiring, upgrading and promoting black people in the construction industry and the federal and District of Columbia government. A prominent member of the Black United Front, he also led fights against police brutality among a host of other rights issues.

Strike wave at Washington, D.C.’s Capital Transit: 1945 [May 10, 2015 by Daniel Hardin]: In the midst of a struggle over integration and pent-up wage demands following World War II, transit workers in Washington wage a battle to better their conditions and in the process set the stage to transform their union.

The DC women streetcar operators of World War II [March 20, 2013 by Craig Simpson]: In the midst of a World War II shortage of operators and a campaign by African Americans to integrate the operator ranks, the transit company hires women for the first time to pilot the city’s streetcars and buses.

The fight against Capital Transit’s Jim Crow hiring: 1941-55 [October 14, 2012 by Craig Simpson]: The long struggle to integrate Washington’s Capital Transit Company operator ranks—from World War II to the early years of the modern civil rights movement.

Related Images

ATU 689 officers

Hattie Sheehan

Frances Lewis

O. Roy Chalk

Walter Bierwagen

Group Health: 1959

No fare hike: 1966-72

Exact bus fare: 1968

D.C. streetcar women: 1943-60

Transit strike: 1974

ATU 689 birth: 1916-17

On the job murder at Metro: 1974

ATU Local 689: No Service 1974

Fighting Capital Transit racism: 1941-55

Transit strike: 1955

Transit strike: 1951

Capital Transit strikes; 1945

DC Metro wildcat strikes: 1978

Related documents

White Man’s Road Through Black Man’s Home – 1968

Second Rally to Re-Open the 69 Confiscated NE Homes – June 1969

Smash the 3-Sisters Bridge – Nov. 1969

Victory Celebration of the 3-Sisters Bridge Decision: Oct. 1971

WMATA & union letters ordering striking workers back to work – May 1974

Arbitration award on Metro strike discipline – 1978

Files of the Metro Employees Action Alliance – 1976

WMATA management proposals for contract changes – May 1, 1976

Questions to be asked at the union meeting  – May 18, 1976

Summary of Metro contract proposals circulated to union membership – circa May 22, 1976

Caucus meeting agenda – May 28, 1976

Draft notice to members of Metro’s contract proposals  – circa May 28, 1976

Files of the Metro Workers Rank and File Action Caucus

Action

Vol. 1 No. 1 – Sept. 5, 1978

Vol.1. No. 2 – Oct. 1978

Vol. 1 No. 3 – Nov. 1978

Vol. 1 No. 4 – Jan. 1979

Vol. 1 No. 5 – Jun. 1979

Vol. 1 No. 6 – Aug. 1979

Action Caucus Minutes, flyers and election flyers

Caucus minutes – 7/30/78 – 10/1/78

Turn out for the arbitration hearings flyer – 8/21/78

Report of the Local 689 audit committee – 10/2/79

A vote for Mayo-Waller-Simpson is a vote for change – election flyer 11/79

Elect the Unity Slate platform – 11/79

Letter on the disqualification of Walter Tucker as presidential candidate—11/19/1979

Vote January 9 Mayo-Waller-Simpson—1/9/80

Vote Mayo-Waller-Simpson in the runoff elections—1/16/80

Attend the new officers installation—2/80

Unofficial election results—2/80

Files of the Metro Committee Against Racism (CAR)

Metro C.A.R. – August 1978 ca.

Paddy Whalen & the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade

4 Feb
Baltimore Union Leader Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen: 1938 ca.

Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen

By Daniel Hardin

On January 17, 1937, hundreds of striking seamen hiked down U.S. Route 1 from Baltimore, Maryland to Washington, D.C. on what became known as the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade.

The insurgents within the International Seamen’s Union (ISU) were on the ropes and desperate action was needed to save their rank-and-file caucus.

The strike began in early November in sympathy with West Coast waterfront workers. It was led by a rank-and-file committee within the ISU that challenged the legitimacy of the ISU itself.

However, by Christmas 1936 ships were leaving Baltimore harbor with full crews, and on January 14 other waterfront unions called off their strikes and ordered their members to return to work.

Only one person could have rallied the Baltimore strikers after two months of privation and the desertion of other waterfront unions. That was Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen.

Paddy Whalen

Whalen was born in 1884 and followed his father into the locomotive engineers’ union. Whalen apparently had conflicts with the railroad companies and began a wandering period that ended with him finding work in the engine rooms of merchant ships.

Patrick B. Whalen Mug Shot: 1937 ca.

Undated mug shot of Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen.

Whalen sailed out of New York on one of the merchant ships in the early 1930s, and Charles Rubin, a communist seaman, shipped out with him. According to The Log of Rubin the Sailor, Rubin was fascinated by Whalen’s knowledge of radical labor groups like the Knights of Labor, the Molly McGuires and the Wobblies.

Rubin recruited Whalen into the militant, communist-aligned Marine Workers Industrial Union (MWIU) and later into the Communist Party (CP) itself. Whalen rose quickly as a leader among the seafarers. When the CP broke up the MWIU and sent its activists to work within the International Seamen’s Union, Whalen became a leader in the rank-and-file caucus.

The anti-communist Bella Dodd described Whalen in her book School of Darkness:

Paddy Whalen best represented the picturesque elements among the Communists of that era. He was a little Irishman, the mayor of Hooversville as they named this town of shanties over on the Jersey flats. He had piercing black eyes. He drank too much and ate too little. In his way, he was dedicated to the labor movement, having once been an IWW…

Paddy Whalen came from the Middle West. Once a Catholic, he argued doctrine with priests yet begged help for strikers from men of all faiths. As mayor of a pathetic heap of boxes and tins, he wore with great dignity a hand-me-down black derby and an overcoat which reached his heels.

In late 1934 or early 1935 he moved to Baltimore and quickly became the head of the rank and file caucus within the ISU. Duke Avnet, a left-wing Baltimore labor lawyer, remembered Whalen:

He ran sentences together. He mispronounced words; he committed malapropism. He cussed profusely. His grammar was a classic of mistakes. But his thinking was clear; and he knew the seamen and their problems.

The Strike

The strike on the East Coast began in early November and was briefly supported by nearly the entire waterfront.

Striking Seamen Register for March on DC: 1937

Baltimore ISU headquarters during 1936-7 strike.

When the impeccably dressed Joseph McCurdy, president of the Baltimore Federation of Labor, sided with the ship owners in seeking an injunction, Whalen spoke to a rally and “denounced labor leaders who had ‘ritzy’ lifestyles and insisted on wearing ‘clean shirts,’” according to Vernon Pederson’s The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57,

Whalen told the crowd, “I have been involved in strikes for years and I have slept in flophouses, under viaducts and in jails—with my comrades. We have no money, and to win this strike every man must expect to suffer the hardships of his fellows.”

At a crucial point in the strike, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) local unions briefly joined in. Thousands of striking workers chased ILA President Joe Ryan back to his car when he tried to speak against the strike.

But, in the days that followed, ILA locals met separately and Ryan’s supporters were able to sway the workers to vote against officially joining the strike.

As the strike crumbled in early 1937, Whalen sought to save the insurgency from an outright defeat and preserve the Baltimore section of the organization that he led.

 Fink Books

The opportunity came as Congress was considering ship owners’ legislation that would establish a single discharge book to be filled out by each ship captain after each voyage.

Baltimore Soviet Marches on Washington: 1934

“Baltimore Soviet” marches on D.C. in 1934

Up to this point, individual discharge papers from each tour had been issued by the ship captains. Union seamen viewed the proposed single discharge book as an attempt by ship owners to blacklist them since one captain who didn’t like a maritime worker could smear them on a single discharge book. The legislation was called the Copeland Safety at Sea Act.

Also pending was a National Labor Relations Board decision on whether the rank and file caucus could challenge the ISU during federally supervised elections to represent the seamen.

It’s not clear who came up with the idea for a march on Washington but it may have been Al Lannon, a national leader of the rank-and-file committee. Lannon had previously led the Baltimore MWIU in the early 1930s and had organized a small march on Washington in 1934 demanding continued disbursement of federal relief funds through the union instead of outside organizations that were feathering their own nests.

As a result of agitation by the MWIU the disbursement of funds through the so-called “Baltimore Soviet,” continued for another year. The “Soviet” provided beds, food, barbers and other services for waterfront workers during the toughest early years of the Great Depression.

 The Midnight March

Whether it was Whalen’s or Lannon’s thoughts that led to the march, Whalen took it up with enthusiasm and the idea captured the imagination of seamen up and down the ports on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Seamen March in Rain in D.C. Protest #2: 1937

The “Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade.”

Elizabeth Fee wrote in The Baltimore Book:

Calling it the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade, Whalen led hundreds of seamen and supporters from other unions along U.S. Route 1 through a day and night of rain and slush to the nation’s capital.

There they were joined by several thousand more demonstrators, and pickets were thrown around the Department of Commerce as well as the Capitol. The seamen visited all the principal department heads in government. One delegation even went to President Franklin Roosevelt in the White House.

With the momentum of the march, Baltimore’s striking seamen voted to end the 87-day strike, obtaining wage increases for the sailors, according to Jo Ann Argersinger in the Maryland Historical Magazine.

Shortly afterward the NLRB ruled in favor of the caucus meeting the definition of a union under federal law. The rank-and-file committee in turn established itself as the National Maritime Union (NMU) and quickly challenged the ISU, winning representation in 56 of 67 companies where elections were held.

As a result of the new power on the waterfront, the Copeland Safety at Sea Act was amended to permit either single discharge papers or new books to be utilized—effectively preventing ship owners from blacklisting union supporters.

A sweeping victory had been snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Seamen’s Solidarity

Seamen Arrested in DC Protesting Nazi Regime: 1936

Striking seamen protesting the Nazi regime are arrested outside German embassy in 1936.

The camaraderie of the sailors at sea proved a great recipe for union members in port.

During the strike, the rank-and-file committee adopted a resolution to “treat all seamen as brothers and on an equality” basis regardless of race or color according to Argersinger. A cook of Chinese descent, who was barred by West Coast waterfront unions from membership, was taken in by Whalen and his union.

Argersinger wrote that Whalen set up a “court of justice” with fines and punishments for crimes ranging from drunkenness to scabbing—the most serious offense. The “Baltimore Soviet” services were replicated with rooms, food service and organized exercise. Differing ethnic groups were encouraged to play instruments and sing their songs for all.

Elisabeth Gilman, a social democrat from Baltimore, said the strike was “the most orderly and best conducted I have ever seen.”

 Fight for Integrated Crews

Striking Seamen Stage Guerilla Theater: 1937 (2)

The Baltimore NMU fought for integration.

When the NMU was officially formed in 1938, its constitution prohibited discrimination. Andor Skotnes in New Deal for All? quotes the lawyer Avnet relating an incident where Whalen put teeth into this provision:

The Captain of the vessel phoned and complained that some of the crew members were not satisfactory. There were three Negro members who had been assigned to the deck and engine departments. Previously Negroes had been segregated on the ships to the steward’s department only.

Pat [Whalen] held his ground and refused to withdraw these three crew members. Shortly afterward, the crew itself arrived at the union hall and [the white crew members] announced that they would not sail with Negroes.

Whalen called a general membership meeting for that night to try the white crewmembers for undemocratic conduct. During this meeting several seamen of color spoke against the white crew’s actions, and a number of whites spoke in favor of it. Whalen took the floor and harangued the membership on how racism created a reservoir of strikebreakers and how the enemy ISU had always stood for Jim Crow.

He spoke of trade union democracy where all were equal regardless of race, color or creed, and shook his head and vowed sadly that the new union would be better dead aborning than to follow in the old ways…The men understood him and the membership voted the crew either sail with Negro members or that they should turn in their union books.

Some books were thrown on the table. But the ship sailed with a mixed crew and this policy has since largely prevailed in the port of Baltimore.

 The Broader Fight

Striking Maritime Workers Protest Discharge Papers: 1937

Women were also members of the NMU: Elsa Landstrom, a striker at the Midnight March.

Elizabeth Fee cited a George Meyers account of how Whalen also fought for integration on the Baltimore waterfront:

The National Maritime Union always worked integrated crews, and we’d go into a waterfront bar and order up a bottle. The bartenders would serve the white seamen and refuse to serve the others because, they said, it was against the law.

So Paddy’s guys would pick the bottle up and throw it into the mirror…and that was the way the waterfront was integrated. After that, anyone could be served with no problem.

Whalen didn’t confine the fight against segregation to the waterfront. In one of the largest community based campaigns in the pre-World-War-II period, the CIO sent representatives into community meetings to raise its own demands such as housing for black workers at Bethlehem Steel and other mills, factories and shipyards.

Andor Skotnes in New Deal for All? writes:

On one occasion in 1939, Patrick Whalen, head of the Baltimore Industrial Union Council, silenced a hostile white crowd at a public meeting with a passionate defense of public housing for all. The nature of the coalition emerging in the new housing movement is evident in the committee formed in northwestern Baltimore, which included representatives from the NAACP, the NNC, BUL, the CIO and social liberal groupings. Both Lillie Jackson of the NAACP and Albert Blumberg of the Communist Party were among its leaders.

 Whalen as Port Agent

Whalen was the port agent (principal union representative) for NMU in Baltimore from 1937-42 and was known for his brash and confrontational style.

Seamen Return to DC Protesting Scab Certificates: 1939

Baltimore NMU banner at 1939 march on D.C.

In a 1987 interview for the Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, African American seaman Neville Sutherland recalled Whalen having a telephone conversation with Governor Harry Nice:

He wanted the governor to give something, and the governor said it can’t be done…You get him on the goddamn phone, this is Patrick Beeway Dubiss [Whalen]. So, when he got out,he told him what he wanted, and the governor said to the guy it can’t be done. He [Whalen] says, Oh, it’s gonna be done, don’t tell me what can’t be done. He [Whalen] said you full of shit, he says…that’s the way he talked [and] he [Whalen] got it.

Whalen would lead his seamen to return to Washington, D.C. at least two more times in 1938 and 1939 to demand strict procedures for issuing sailors’ certificates. As the NMU conducted strikes against particular shipping lines, the ISU or ship owners would try to bring strikebreakers aboard. The protests at the Commerce Department demanded the department halt what the NMU said was a practice of issuing certificates to unqualified scabs while denying qualified union supporters the certificates.

Maritime Union Leader Held on Gun Charges: 1938

Whalen arrested in New Jersey on weapons charges.

During this period, Whalen had his share of enemies. While en route to a meeting of the national union in New York City, Hudson County police stopped the vehicle he was riding in and arrested him and four others for carrying “concealed and dangerous weapons.”

Questions immediately arose about how the police came to know that Whalen was riding in this particular vehicle that held weapons. Speculation turned to Joseph Curran, the NMU president, who was allegedly jealous of other leaders in the union. Neville Sutherland ventured:

Actually, Colonel [Curran] was afraid of Patrick Whalen, see. And Colonel [Curran] was a big rat too, [Inaudible word(s)] Patrick leave here. Patrick Whalen was a very small man, a very, very, very, small man, see; must’ve weighed about 105 pounds, 110 pounds.

And he’d leave from here, and he knew that Patrick Whalen had a gun in the car, see. That Patrick Whalen didn’t take shit from nobody and he called the Jersey police up, and notified them that he was coming and he had it and when he hit the Jersey line, they pulled him up and they got him in the car there.

Charges were later dropped and the incident, if anything, boosted Whalen’s standing among the workers.

Whalen as a Communist

Whalen made no secret of his communist beliefs. The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote in What is to be Done? that the communist’s “…ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears…”

Alice Neel Portrait of Paddy Whalen: 1935

Alice Neel portrait of Paddy Whalen holding a copy of the Daily Worker.

Paddy Whalen seemed to somehow embody both. The artist Alice Neel, who painted Whalen in 1935 with a copy of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker and two clenched fists, said of Whalen, “Patty Whalen was the organizer on the waterfront…He was just an ordinary Irishman except for one thing: He was absolutely convinced of communism, and he could convince other longshoremen…”

Whalen hated fascism and during the 1936-7 strike, Whalen organized 50 seamen to travel to Washington, D.C. to picket the German embassy in support of seaman Lawrence Simpson who was charged by the Nazis with subversion.

While drumming up support for the 1936-37 strike, Whalen also went on a recruiting sortie for the Maryland Communist Party to Cumberland, Md. where he met and recruited labor leader George Meyers. Meyers led the unionization of the Celanese Mills, where 10,000 workers were employed. Meyers later became head of the Maryland Industrial Union Council, the state arm of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Meyers also went on to head the Md.-D.C. Communist Party, was jailed for three years during the McCarthy era, and later headed the CP’s National Labor Commission, demonstrating Whalen’s effectiveness in winning others to his ideas.

 Killed by Nazi Submarine

SS Illinois  - Ship Where Whalen was Killed: 1942

S.S. Illinois

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the Nazi regime in Germany declared war on the U.S. a few days later, the Communist Party asked its members to enlist in the war effort. Despite his exemption from the draft as union port agent, Whalen went back to sea in the merchant marine, working in the engine room of the S.S. Illinois.

On June 2, 1942, as the Illinois sailed on a return voyage along the Southern Atlantic route and was about 450 miles southeast of Bermuda, Nazi submarine U-159 sent two torpedoes into its engine room. Whalen died instantly and 31 others also perished. The ship went down with 8,000 tons of manganese ore aboard. Whalen’s body, like those of most seamen on sunken ships, was never recovered. Six survivors were picked up out of the water six days later.

U-159 Shortly Before Sinking: 1943

U-159 shortly before sinking by a VP 32 Mariner.

The workers of Baltimore saw their revenge. On July 28, 1943 a PBM Mariner dropped bombs onto U-159 and sent the Nazi submarine to the bottom of the sea.

A liberty ship was launched from Brunswick, Ga. bearing the name Patrick B. Whalen in March 1945 in his memory and a small service held in Baltimore the same day. However during the Cold War the name of the S.S. Patrick B. Whalen was changed and it was eventually scrapped in Taiwan in 1967.


Writer’s Notes:

Joseph Curran took complete control of the union at a 1947 convention where the left wing of the union lost by a single vote—a casualty of the anti-communist fever orchestrated by Democratic President Harry S. Truman and a Republican Congress. Soon after, 10 years of union democracy was gone and Curran came to symbolize the worst aspects of trade unionism, building a palatial union headquarters in New York. The NMU merged with the rival ISU in 1988.

Striking Seamen Leaders to Meet Commerce Secretary: 1937

Paddy Whalen (1st row, left) and Joseph Curran (1st row holding paper) during 1936-37 strike.

The cities of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. are only 30 miles apart, but they might as well be 3,000. Only rarely is there cultural spillover between the two. However Whalen’s position in the Maryland Industrial Council of the CIO and his unflinching fight against discrimination inspired the same fight in Washington, D.C. as activists sought to integrate defense industries and the Capital Transit Company.

Whalen is long forgotten, except among a few scholars. Perhaps when someone views the bar scenes in Season 2 of The Wire, they’ll think of Paddy Whalen and the method he used to integrate the waterfront bars of Baltimore.

Sources for this post include the Washington Star, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Afro-American, The Baltimore Sun, The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57, The Baltimore Book, The Maryland Historical Magazine, Pictures of People: Alice Neel’s Portrait Gallery, School of Darkness, A New Deal for All?, The Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, among others.

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The Washington Post Strike at the Crossroads, December 1975

12 Dec

by Craig Simpson

Post Pressmen & Supporters Picket George’s Store

Post Busts Pressmen's Union 1975 # 3

A mass picket line by striking pressmen and supporters in front of a George’s appliance store in Greenbelt, Maryland in December 1975. Photo by Reading/Simpson, non-commercial use permitted.

The International Printing and Graphic Communications Union Local 6, the pressmen’s union, was engaged in a bitterly fought strike at the Washington Post that reached a turning point in December 1975.

When the strike first began on October 1, a number of advertisers switched to the rival Washington Star as the Post struggled to publish a credible newspaper. It appeared for a time that the Star might supplant the Post, unless the strike was settled.

But the management gradually produced more and more pages per day without union workers, and advertisers began switching back to the Post. Picket lines were set up at stores around the metropolitan Washington area at George’s, a local discount appliance store, and K-Mart in December 1975, but failed to dissuade the advertisers from returning to the Post.

Origins of the Strike: The 1973 Printers’ Dispute

Post Printers Lockout

Printers’ union members picket the Post in November 1973 after union member Michael Padilla was fired for engaging in a slowdown at the paper. When printers stopped work, the Post evicted them from the building after calling US Marshals. Photo by Michael Dresser, some rights reserved.

The tipping point in labor relations at the Post came during a November 1973 dispute with International Typographical Union Local 101, the printers’ union.

The Post was a profitable newspaper, but its margins were slipping compared to its other holdings. New management at the paper made the determination that profits could be increased by squeezing more out of fewer workers.

The Post prepared for a confrontation with its unions and trained non-union personnel at an anti-union facility in Oklahoma to produce the newspaper in the event of a strike by one or more of its unions. It also opened its own training facility in Northern Virginia where non-union staff were trained on the relatively new “cold” type press production that needed fewer workers.

The printers were the largest union at the Post and prepared the molten lead “hot” type for printing. They stood in the way of the Post’s drive to cut costs and increase profits.

The printers began engaging in a work slowdown to pressure management to back off its aggressive bargaining posture as they approached the expiration of their labor contract. The management retaliated by firing one printer, Michael Padilla, for engaging in the slowdown. The union responded with a sit-down strike and the Post evicted them from the building after calling US Marshals.

The Post management then prepared an edition of the paper with non-union staff and prepared to run the presses themselves.  Members of the pressmen’s union were made aware of the Post’s plans by other union members in the building and entered the Post’s facilities saying that they were the only ones entitled to run the presses and they intended to do so.

However, they quickly staged their own sit-down strike and some minor damage was done to a few presses. They halted the paper from publishing and took the position they would not work until all other unions returned.  The Post negotiated a quick settlement with the printers and reinstated Padilla.  All the unions returned to work with nothing said about the minor damage. The pressmen were heroes to other craft union members.

But to the Post management, including publisher Katherine Graham, they had a bulls-eye painted on them and over the next two years a number of smaller skirmishes were fought leading up to the expiration of the pressmen’s labor contract.

Pressmen’s Strike Begins October 1, 1975

Post Busts Pressmen's Union 1975 # 1

Pressmen outside the Washington Post building in the early morning hours of October 1, 1975. Photo: Pete Schmick, Courtesy DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post, All Rights Reserved.

The regular pressmen numbered about 200, of whom only about 100 were long term employees. Most of the others migrated to Washington from out-of-town papers for higher wages or because their local unions had been broken during strikes at other newspapers.

The pressmen were viewed as the strongest union at the Post and set the pace for the other nine unions.  Their contract was due to expire September 30, 1975, but the pressmen didn’t plan to strike.  Instead they planned to continue to negotiate while honoring the picket lines of the smaller machinist union at the newspaper whose contract expired at the same time.

However, the machinists were forced to back off of a strike at the last-minute when the Post invoked a binding arbitration clause in the machinists’ contract.

The pressmen’s union leadership decided not to call a strike right away, but a relatively small, organized group of pressmen began disabling the presses at about 4 am and detained and injured a manager. A small fire was set in the printing press room. The strike was on when workers left the building and set up a picket line.  The union leadership then passed out strike signs that had been previously printed in the event of a work stoppage.

The Post was unable to publish for a day, but cobbled together non-union offset print shops around the region to print a reduced version of the paper on the second day and began returning their own presses to running order. They flew the paper produced at the Post by helicopter to printing facilities located within 200 miles of Washington. Later they printed the Sunday and other supplement material as far away as Miami and had it trucked to Washington, DC.

The other unions at the Post either went on strike or respected the picket lines of the pressmen. The exception was the Newspaper Guild, which twice held fierce debates over supporting the strike. Reacting to reports of physical abuse of some members who crossed the picket lines and the damaged presses, they overrode their leadership and voted to continue working on two different occasions, although a minority of Guild members did honor picket lines.

The striking unions called for a boycott of the Post that was supported by local organized labor, but its effects were limited. The Post’s newspaper sales dropped by about 35,000 and advertising fell from about 70% of the newspaper market to about 65%–significant, but not crippling. Some major advertisers switched to the Star and others advertised more heavily in the rival paper.

The Post’s public relations successfully exploited a highly exaggerated version of the pressroom damage (The Post filed suit for $25 million, but the actual damage figure did not exceed $270,000) as an attack on the “free press.” Later the Post demonstrated its power when a grand jury was convened to investigate strike activities, further demonizing the workers.

As advertisers began to return and revenue began to rebound by late November, the Post made a final offer to the pressmen’s union, a formality before hiring permanent replacements.  The offer would have essentially torn up the expired pressmen’s contract, while providing for some nominal pay raises.  The offer was rejected by a vote of the union members and the Post began advertising for permanent replacements for the pressmen in December.

The Post also isolated the pressmen’s union from much of the rest of the city by repeatedly pointing out the lack of any significant number of African American or women press operators in a city that was nicknamed “Chocolate City” and had more women than men.

They moved to further divide the unions from the city’s working people by exploiting long-standing charges of discrimination against the craft unions and reached an agreement with the Washington Printing Specialties & Paper Products Union, whose members moved the heavy rolls of paper around the shop and performed other manual labor.

The 100 member union was predominantly African American and had been battling the mainly white craft unions over discrimination against its members before the strike and had filed suit against several–although not against the pressmen’s union. They  returned to work and joined many of the Newspaper Guild’s members  crossing the picket lines. While not essential to publishing the paper, the agreement with the paper handlers union legitimized the Post’s position and further discredited the strikers in the eyes of many African Americans.

The momentum in the battle had clearly swung toward the management.

1,000 March & Burn Katherine Graham in Effigy

K Graham Burned in Effigy 1976 # 28

Over 1,000 striking pressmen and supporters staged a march and rally on the one year anniversary of the strike on October 2, 1976 that culminated with burning Katherine Graham in effigy in front of the Post headquarters. Photo by Reading/Simpson, non-commercial use permitted.

As the strike moved into 1976, the Post was effectively producing the newspaper at its own printing plant with the permanent replacements of the pressmen and non-union pressmen imported from other areas of the country. The permanent replacements were mainly African Americans along with a few women. The diversity of the replacements was showcased by the Post.

The Post unions had a support committee that worked hard to convince the broader public to back the strike. At one point a petition was circulated among prominent local residents asking that the dispute be submitted to binding arbitration.  The Post refused arbitration. AFL-CIO president George Meany held a meeting with publisher Katherine Graham, but accounts of the meeting indicate that Meany didn’t push hard and Graham was firm that the pressmen had been permanently replaced.

With defeat staring at them, the other Post unions undertook serious negotiations with management over resolving their own issues. Individual members of the various craft unions began drifting back to work.

On February 17, 1976 the mailers’ union, who sorted and bundled the newspapers, reached an agreement with the Post. They returned to work along with the printers’ union—representing about half of the 1,400 craft union workers. The other unions and their members followed shortly thereafter.

The strike was lost at this point and the pressmen’s union was broken. They were now out on their own–along with a few members of other unions who refused to go back and a committed group of supporters.

The U.S. Attorney obtained indictments against 15 pressmen while none of those who crossed picket lines and assaulted strikers were charged.

On the first anniversary of the strike– October 2, 1976–over 1,000 pressmen and their supporters rallied at McPherson Square and marched to the Post building where they burned Katherine Graham in effigy. The march was defiant, but for the pressmen it was more like a funeral.

The pressmen continued to picket the Post through the judicial proceedings. On May 20, 1977, after plea agreements were concluded in court, fourteen pressmen were given sentences that ranged from fines for most individuals to a year in jail for one pressman. The light sentences for most pressmen vindicated their account that the initial disabling of the presses was relatively minor, but it was a hollow victory.

Local 6 was decimated by the strike and ceased to exist after the Washington Star newspaper folded in 1981. The strike was one of the biggest defeats ever suffered by organized labor in the District of Columbia.

Could the Pressmen Have Prevailed?

K Graham Burned in Effigy 1976 # 30

Helicopter at Post building one year after strike began. Management used helicopters in the early stages of the strike to ferry ready-to-print versions of the paper to offset print shops within 200 miles of Washington. Photo: Reading/Simpson, non-commercial use permitted.

Most accounts written after the strike point to the initial disabling of the presses on October 1, 1975 as sealing the pressmen’s fate, but that is an oversimplification.  Even with the Post’s account of “violence” monopolizing the media, the outcome was not certain two and half months into the strike.

Certainly the property damage was a factor in the Guild’s decision not to honor picket lines and gave the Post ammunition to use against the strike. But a significant number of Guild members would have crossed the picket lines in any event and the Post intended to publish utilizing non-union labor even if no damage had occurred.

Simply pointing to the “violence” in which one person was hurt and some relatively minor damage done to property does not take into consideration that the Post settled the 1973 dispute after similar, although not as widespread, disabling of the presses.

The larger error that the pressmen made was viewing the impending confrontation as a traditional battle fought by a group of skilled craftsmen who were necessary for production against a management that was making unprecedented demands but could be forced to back down as they had in the past. The pressmen applied the lessons they had learned from previous battles, like the printers’ dispute, and believed they could prevail by withholding their labor. The rump group that disabled the presses followed this thinking to its logical–but ultimately wrong–conclusion.

Instead, the pressmen faced a powerful enemy who had negated the crafts’ advantage in earlier labor confrontations. The pressmen failed to grasp the impact that technological improvements like cold type would have on the ability to produce the paper in the workers’ absence. They further underestimated the ability of replacements and management to print a paper, despite the printing craft unions’ experience in other cities. They believed that the “liberal” Washington Post would not openly “bust” a union. Perhaps most critically, they didn’t have a winning strategy to sway the broader public to their cause.

In such circumstances, the pressmen were unprepared to cast their battle as part of a larger struggle of working people that were then vigorously resisting similar demands. Employers during the 1970s sought to reverse hard-won work rules and increase productivity while holding down wages due to increased international competition and flattening profits. Workers in the Washington area and around the country were waging strikes, both legal and illegal, over the employers’ demands for more work with less pay in order to maintain their profit margins.

The craft unions at the Post did ultimately realize their need to wage a broader struggle after the strike began. They banded together and formed a “Post Unions United” group and organized a strike support committee–gathering support from other unions and activist groups throughout the city. They launched a campaign to boycott the Post, trying to identify their struggle with broader struggles with a “No Grapes, No Lettuce, No Post” slogan. They hit back at the Post for “union-busting.”

However, these slogans did not resonate. Some accounts after the strike simply noted that Washington was not an industrial city with strong unions.  This is not entirely accurate either.  The city is not industrial in nature, but the upswing in public employee unions in the late 1960s and early 1970s actively engaged tens of thousands of workers in and around the city. Strong established unions already existed in the hotels, grocery,  communications, transit, trucking & warehouses and in construction as well as other sectors.  And, workers were in a fighting mood, like those across the country.

The problem with the campaign message is that it did not capture the reason why the workers were striking and translate it into a just cause that other working people could embrace. The message used would not override the Post’s campaign against “violence” and defense of a “free press.”

Further, the pressmen left themselves vulnerable to be divided from a large, natural ally in the metropolitan area–African Americans who supported unions in much higher percentages than other population groups.

Of the craft unions, the pressmen weren’t the worst when it came to discrimination. They were not one of the unions sued by the paper handlers at the Post. They had taken on some African American apprentices and junior apprentices and had a few black journeymen. However, that didn’t alter the fact that they were overwhelmingly white in a city that was overwhelmingly black, and the larger public didn’t make fine distinctions among the various craft unions.

Unlike the city’s transit union leadership which helped force a desegregation of operator ranks within the union in 1955 prior to a long strike with the Capital Transit Company in order to diffuse the issue, the pressmen’s union did not fully recognize the damage that would be done to their position. And that’s without considering the good will that would have been generated by strides toward full desegregation of their ranks.

It’s easy now to look back and debate what should have been done 40 years ago to prepare for this confrontation and it should be remembered that the pressmen and the other craft unions, despite whatever weaknesses they had, waged a toe-to-toe battle against a determined foe for nearly three months before the tide turned against them.

We’ll never know if a clear message linking the Post unions’ struggles with those being waged by other working people, along with a reputation as a progressive union, would have made a difference in the outcome. But we can know that doing so would have made for a more effective boycott, reducing subscribers and thereby keeping more advertising dollars away from the Post. This in turn would have strengthened the rival Washington Star, putting increased pressure on the Post to reach an agreement.

Author’s Notes:

As a young union activist, I brought the Post craft unions’ boycott materials to my transit union meeting. Some of the officers of the union removed the material from the sign-in table and castigated me for supporting a strike of unions that had discriminated against African Americans. We argued for a while and a lot of the rank and file at the meeting listened in interest, but the damage that was done to the strike’s cause by unions that had failed to take meaningful steps to integrate their ranks cannot be overstated.

Most of the material for this article came from the Washington Star, New York Times, Washington Post, Washington City Paper and flyers produced by strike supporters.


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College.  He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


For more photos of the strike

For more photos of the one year strike anniversary march and rally

600 Black Women Stand Strong: The 1938 Crab Pickers Strike

5 Dec
A Face of the CIO Union in Crisfield, MD: 1938

Pauline Schofield with CIO button, Crisfield, MD, May 1938. Original image courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

By Craig Simpson

Working people in Crisfield, Maryland, were in desperate straits on the first of April in 1938.

The Great Depression hadn’t lifted yet, and 300 garment workers, mostly women, had been thrown out of work two weeks earlier when two factories had closed. One town official estimated that 90% of the Crisfield workforce was unemployed at that time.

Then, on top of everything else, on April 4th the town’s packing companies cut the amount paid to hundreds of crab pickers from 35 cents per gallon to 25 cents per gallon. The packers might have figured that the pickers would just be thankful to have a job.

Instead, two days later, 600 predominantly African American women crab pickers walked out on a five-week strike. They demanded that the rates be restored to 35 cents and that the packing companies recognize the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) as their union.

They defied mob intimidation and long weeks of privation, but won their strike—and a union.

Climate of Racial Fear

The town had a mixed history of race relations. It had experienced brutal racial violence, but also cooperation at times among black and white workers against the packinghouses.

Crisfield, previously named Somers Cove, had a population of about 6,000 in 1938, over one-quarter of whom were African American. The town, located near the southernmost portion of Maryland’s Eastern Shore on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, was heavily dependent on the seafood industry.  It billed itself the “Seafood Capital of the World.”

The town took its name from John W. Crisfield, one of the largest slave holders in the state during the 1860s and a pro-slavery congressman during the Civil War. He was defeated in 1863 by abolitionist John Cresswell in what is widely believed to be vote fraud conducted by federal troops in the state. Crisfield secured the financing that brought the Eastern Shore Railroad to the town in 1867 and the town’s name was changed to honor him.

Lynching occurred all too frequently on the Eastern Shore up into the 1930s. One had occurred in Crisfield 30 years before and there were several others in surrounding towns in more recent years.

In 1907, James Reed allegedly shot and killed Crisfield police chief John H. Daugherty.  Reed was captured while fleeing the town by boat. He was beaten to death and hung from a telegraph pole and his body was later buried in a marsh. Unsatisfied, white rioters dug up Reed’s body, cut it up, shot it with bullets and then threw it into a bonfire.  Following this, the mob ran through the black community pulling people from their homes and beating them.

Thirty miles away in Salisbury in 1931, Matt Williams suffered a similar barbaric death administered by a mob. Again in 1931, a gang of whites in Snow Hill, 35 miles from Crisfield, beat white International Labor Defense attorney Bernard Ades and a male and female companion when they couldn’t find their African American target Euel Lee.

Twenty miles away in Princess Anne in 1933, George Armwood was dragged from the local jail with a rope around his neck, beaten, stabbed and kicked. The mob tied him to the back of a truck and dragged him down the street to a large tree. The crowd cut off his ears, took his gold teeth, and then repeatedly dropped his lifeless body from a large limb to the ground. They then dragged Armwood’s corpse back to the courthouse in the center of town where it was hanged from a telephone pole and set on fire.

Racial Solidarity in 1931 Strike

The virulent racism that characterized some sectors of the population wasn’t the whole story in Crisfield, and 1938 was not the first year crab pickers had resisted the packinghouses’ attempts to reduce their pay.

Housing at W. T. Handy Packinghouse 2: 1940

Workers who picked crabs, shucked oysters or canned vegetables were paid little and had little. Shown is housing for permanent workers at the W. T. Handy plant in Crisfield, MD  ca 1940. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1931, the packers also reduced rates from $0.35 per gallon to $0.25 per gallon (the equivalent of seven cents to five cents per pound) of picked crabmeat.

Leroy R. Carson, who owned one of the largest packinghouses in Crisfield and also owned a packinghouse in Hampton, VA, led the move.   In what would become a recurring practice, Carson reduced rates in Hampton and used the Virginia competition as a reason to reduce rates in Crisfield.

In response, on September 8, nearly 300 crab pickers quit working and went on strike.

The strikers marched from door to door through working class neighborhoods enlisting support. Their ranks bolstered, they marched through downtown Crisfield.

In all, between 700 and 800 crabmeat pickers—of whom about 100 were white—from 22 crab-picking plants joined the strike.

They had the backing of a racially mixed group of oyster shuckers whose season was about to begin and who feared their rates would also be reduced. The U.S. Department of Labor, US Conciliation Service’s Georgia Johnson stated, “Much solidarity is reported between all workers, white and colored…”

Johnson went on to say that, “The operators are holding out, because they wish continued wage reductions through the oyster-shucking season which opens today; and that this reduction is chiefly to fix oyster shucking wages through the autumn, winter and spring seasons.”

The owner of one of the three largest seafood businesses in Crisfield, J. C. W. Tawes, was quoted as saying that “…rather than submit to the strikers’ demands he would sell out and leave Crisfield.”

Tawes demanded that Mayor William H. Bradshaw order out the police, arm the citizens or order out the militia, ostensibly to protect black women who he claimed didn’t want to strike.  He alleged they were intimidated by a mostly white, male group of oyster shuckers.

Instead, Bradshaw brokered an agreement where some packinghouses agreed to a compromise rate of 30 cents per gallon. Both the packers and the strikers were dissatisfied with Bradshaw’s deal and the packers quickly reneged and kept the rate at the 25 cent reduced level.  The strike had ended in defeat.

Labor Unrest Continues

Women Picking Crabmeat in MD: 1940 ca

Crab pickers at Milbourne Oyster Co., Crisfield, MD, 1940 ca. Image courtesy of Maryland State Archives, educational use only.

Labor unrest continued in subsequent years and there were allegations of intolerable working conditions and of the exploitation of children. Worker advocates called for crab pickers and oyster shuckers to be classified as wage workers and paid an hourly rate.

In response to federal inquiries, the packers raised the rates back to the 35 cents per gallon level.

However in February, 1934, packinghouse owner Carson told a National Recovery Act administrator that crab pickers in Crisfield were lying about conditions.  He insisted that it was not rates that were to blame for poor conditions of workers in Crisfield, but instead the federal government: “I can prove that one family there is getting $15 a week federal aid.  The wife won’t pick crabs and the husband won’t shuck oysters.”

He went on to say that the rate for crab pickers should be about 5 cents a pound and that he was opposed to an hourly rate.   He reasoned that the crab harvest was unpredictable and thus could not be subjected to an hourly wage.

In December, 1935 the packers again unilaterally reduced rates and 100 workers struck, temporarily closing all but three packinghouses that had not reduced rates.

CIO Organizing on the Shore

On Maryland’s Eastern Shore unions were scarce and organized African Americans were almost unheard of. But by 1937, the CIO was leading a movement that organized male and female, black and white workers into single industrial unions.

Union Business Cambridge Strike 1937

Black & White workers at the Phillips plant in Cambridge MD unite during 1937 strike. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The first big battle in the packing industry on the Shore occurred at the massive Phillips packing plant in Cambridge, MD, during a strike in 1937. Over 2,000 black and white workers united and waged a vigorous two-week struggle demanding wage hikes and unionization.

At one point a group of several hundred white and black strikers marched on the city jail and freed a black striker. They ultimately lost the strike and did not achieve a union independent of the company, but the effort was well publicized throughout the Eastern Shore.

The United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America, CIO that had been active in the Phillips strike began organizing in Crisfield.  In November 1937, three organizers of the cannery union were run out of Crisfield by a crowd of about 50 whites while trying to organize among oyster shuckers.

Leif Dahl, east coast organizer and national executive board member of the union, telephoned Governor Harry W. Nice and asked for protection for Michael Howard, secretary-treasurer of the Baltimore Industrial Council, and his other organizers.

Crisfield Chief of Police Willard Laird claimed no knowledge of the incident but Mayor Bradshaw said he told the organizers to “withdraw peacefully” from the town because it “was not the proper time for their efforts”, according to the Washington Post.

Dahl vowed that the organizers would return to Crisfield, and the union representatives came back to organize quietly among oyster shuckers and crab pickers. Despite the intimidation, one of the smaller crab picking houses was organized in 1937.

The Strike Begins

In 1938, pickers’ pay was back up to 35 cents per gallon. At that rate many pickers earned between $1 and $1.50 weekly, although faster pickers could make as much as $5 per week or more. Out of these earnings, workers paid 35 cents weekly for removal of the crab shells they had picked.

A reduction back to 25 cents a gallon meant many workers’ already meager earnings would be cut by as much as a third.

The packinghouse owners announced the cut April 4, with the exception of Nelson R. Coulbourn’s packinghouse that continued to pay the old rate of 35 cents per gallon.

Pickers at every packinghouse except Coulbourn’s walked out April 6 and the packinghouses shut down.

The packers may have initially thought that the women would cave after a few weeks and the houses would be open in time for crab season that was to begin May 2.

The packers may also have considered the timing of their rate reduction.  The 1931 rate reductions occurred just before the beginning of oyster season and threatened the rates of oyster shuckers.  This reduction occurred near the end of the oyster season, making the oyster shuckers’ support of a strike less of a factor.

Shiloh United Methodist Church, Crisfield: 2012

Shiloh ME Church, Crisfield, MD shown in 2012. The CIO crab pickers union held meetings in the church & the grassy area in foreground is where a union organizer’s car was overturned & burned.

Local stores were pressured to cut off credit to the strikers, but Howard organized a food committee and began raising funds and food for strikers among the CIO unions and churches in Baltimore.

The workers—mostly African American women—held meetings to keep the strike organized and cope with their lack of income at the Shiloh ME (United Methodist) Church just off Route 413 on N. Fourth St. at the entrance of the town.

As the strike began its third week, Robert W. Knadler, a field examiner for the National Labor Relations Board, arranged a meeting between the packers and Howard. The conference quickly broke up when Howard demanded a contract guaranteeing rates for a definite period.

As the strikers held firm, the packinghouses, watermen and farmers combined forces. The watermen who set the lines to catch crabs were nearly all white, and the season was about to start with the packinghouses closed. Local farmers feared the cannery union would organize agricultural workers like it was attempting in New Jersey.

Mob Terrorizes Community

A white crowd estimated at between 100 and 300 gathered near a black section of town on N. Fourth Street on April 21. The mob broke into the home of two sisters who were on the strike committee, Eleanor Coulbourne and Martina Cooper.

Afro on Crisfield Strike with Headline, Article & 3 Photos: 1938

Afro American April 30, 1938 with banner headline “Troopers Halt Crisfield Mob,” story, “600 Girls on Strike” & 3 photos of strike, including Howard’s overturned & burned auto.

Mob leaders declared they would “ruin” Cooper and Howard if they found them, according to the Afro American newspaper. They broke into at least one other house on the street, but couldn’t find Cooper, Howard or another strike leader whose name they said was Terry Fowler.

Unable to find the strike leaders or the CIO organizers, they turned to the Shiloh Church on N. Fourth St. where Howard’s auto was parked. The mob overturned Howard’s car and set fire to it in front of the church.

The Associated Press reported, “The men were said to have been incensed because the organizers had been seen often in the Negro settlement.” According to oral history in Crisfield, Howard was hidden in Upturf, another black neighborhood located on Collins Street, about a half mile north of the church.

The local strike leaders stayed at home during the day, but took refuge with friends at night. Unable to find any of the organizers or strike leaders, members of the mob threatened to “burn the whole block,” according to the Afro American.

Mayor Bradshaw blamed the incident on “radical” and “hot-headed” persons, according to the Associated Press. The Afro American reported that Bradshaw said he was “not sure” whether the mob burned the car at all or whether it “caught fire itself.”

Union Organizers Forced Out of Town

Crisfield Sheriff William Dryden said he and his deputies were out of town during the car burning and when they returned did not make any arrests. The next day, Dahl reported from Salisbury that he had been “forced out of town” by vigilantes. He sent a telegram to Governor Nice requesting protection. Mayor Bradshaw denied any knowledge of Dahl’s eviction from the town.

Upturf Area, Possible CIO Refuge in Crisfield: 1938

Upturf area of Crisfield where CIO organizer Michael Howard may have been when his car was overturned & burned. Original photo courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

The following week, another CIO organizer was accosted. The men stopped an unidentified Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) union representative in front of Boycraft factory, where 200 shirt makers were employed.

He was taken down a dirt road to the Somerset County line and was warned not to try to organize workers.  “We don’t want to hurt you, but you got to get out of town,” said one member of the mob.  According to the Washington Post, the departing organizer stood up in his automobile and said, “I am a CIO organizer and I don’t want to get hurt, but I’m coming back.”

Federal Conciliator Evicted From Crisfield

On April 28, the same day the ACWA organizer was run out of town, federal mediator Stanley White was also ushered out.

In the morning, a group estimated at 150-200 men, who thought he was Howard, stopped White and detained him, then let him go.

When he went back to his lodging, proprietor James Byrd ordered him out of the Somerset Hotel.

“I ordered him out because back of him there was possible trouble. For three days he has been riding around town with Michael Howard and has been a bigger nuisance than Howard. He has even started more trouble,” Byrd said, according to an account in the Washington Post.

Byrd contacted US Rep. Thomas Goldsborough (D-MD) and asked him to get White recalled by the federal government.  A telegram arrived to that effect several hours later.

Before he left town, White went to a meeting where town officials, packinghouse owners and union representatives were to meet and confer.

A. Stengle Marine, Maryland Commissioner of Labor and an Eastern Shore resident, was asked by the governor to attend to help attempt a settlement. Governor Nice also dispatched Major Elmer P. Munshower, commander of the state police, to Crisfield to “report the true facts.”

Before Marine or Munshower arrived, some of the vigilante crowd began tossing firecrackers at White, the federal mediator. The situation became uglier and White left the meeting and went to his car.  When he cranked the ignition, a blast was heard and the auto rocked violently.  Someone had rigged a type of loud explosive to go off when the car was started, although no actual damage was done to the auto. White was then escorted out of town.

The crowd, unsatisfied at evicting White turned their attention to Howard. After much shouting and firing weapons into the air by the crowd, Howard was also escorted out of town.

Mob Violence Begins to Backfire

The anti-strike group had overplayed their hand. Running union organizers out of town usually didn’t attract a lot of attention, but evicting a federal mediator not far from Washington, DC was perhaps like poking a sleeping bear.

Crab Pickers Union Meeting in Crisfield: 1938

Meeting of CIO crab pickers union at the Shiloh M E Church May 1938. Original photo courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

The Baltimore Sun editorialized, “One need not pass judgment on the merits of the strikers’ demands to insist that a community has failed in its duty when its police do not protect a labor organizer or an official interested in settling the strike. The situation at Crisfield is confused by the race issue, since the crab pickers are almost entirely Negro women, but that fact, while it may explain the antics of the vigilantes, does not excuse them.”

The Afro American was more direct: “Observers here point out that the defiance of the packers is one of the most open revolts against the National Labor Relations Act and are watching to see what the NLRB will do in the Crisfield situation where both labor and racial rights have been invaded.”

“So grave is the situation that the slightest untoward happening, it is said, would act as a spark to begin an orgy of lynchings, murders, burnings and the general destruction of property,” the Afro American wrote.

An in-depth article in the Baltimore Sun by Alfred Charles, an Eastern Shore resident, was published April 30 with the headline, “Crisfield Merchants and Citizens Lay Crab Pickers Strike to CIO.” The piece gave the impression that the packers might be willing to settle the strike, but not to bargain or sign a contract with the CIO.

Food Shipments to Strikers Blocked

Vigilantes began stopping all cars coming into Crisfield and demanding that occupants state their business.

Howard had collected 1,000 pounds of food to distribute, but was prohibited by town authorities from moving it in, according to the Afro American. Dahl asked Gov. Nice to provide an escort for the food, but Nice stalled for time.

The Afro wrote, “Crab packers, who have openly defied all constituted authority, together with local officers and leaders, have resorted to the tactics of starving the striking crab pickers out in order to force them back to work.”

N R Coulbourn: Packinghouse Did Not Reduce Rates: 1938

Virginia Lankford or Jackson at N. R. Coulbourn packinghouse in May 1938. Coubourn did not reduce rates and workers did not strike this plant. Original image courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

Throughout the strike, the women had not engaged in picketing and had instead organized quietly out of the public view.

Five smaller packinghouses opened back up with the start of the crabbing season May 2, one paying the old rate of 35 cents and the other four paying the reduced rate, in addition to the N. R. Coulbourn house that had operated continuously since the strike began. This first chink in the strikers’ armor now put some pressure on the strikers, although the large packinghouses remained closed.

Perhaps coincidentally with the reopening of some of the packinghouses, twelve extra state troopers began appearing in Crisfield, assigned by Munshower to keep order in the town. In any event, no arrests were reported of those involved in illegal activities designed to intimidate the striking women.

Women Head to Washington

On May 3, the striking women made their next move. Three of the striking crab pickers, along with Howard, traveled to Washington. There, Senator Robert La Follette (Prog.-WI) promised careful consideration of their request for an investigation after hearing of the deplorable working conditions and the violence directed toward the strike organizers and leaders. The women, whose identities were closely guarded, also met with Maryland’s two senators, Labor Department officials and federal conciliators.

The packers again failed to appreciate the politics of their actions. The Afro reported that “Packers have let it be known that the women sent to Washington to complain to the government won’t be safe if they return to Crisfield.”

The same day, the union filed charges that eleven Crisfield packing companies were violating the National Labor Relations Act.

Packers Change Their Tune

Now understanding for the first time that the tide was beginning to turn against them, the packers altered their public position.

Back in Crisfield, Marine reported the packers did not attend scheduled meetings on April 30 or May 3 to attempt to settle the strike because—they now claimed—the plants were closed because of unprofitable operations and not because of any refusal to deal with the CIO.

Marine went on to report that J. C. W. Tawes told him, “When we are ready to operate we will deal with the representatives of the workers.”

The women were holding firm while pressure was mounting on the packers. The widespread press exposure of mob activity and resistance to the Depression-era labor laws brought political pressure from both the Governor and the federal government to settle the strike..

As the strike moved into the crab season, watermen were forced into longer, more expensive trips to sell their crabs elsewhere and the Crisfield packinghouses were losing money to packers in other towns.

Victory for the Strikers

CIO Union Wins at Crisfield: 1938

May 13, 1938 edition of the Labor Herald, an independent Baltimore based labor newspaper.

On May 9, most of the large packers broke ranks and gave in.  Meeting at the Cambridge home of Marine, representatives of eight packinghouses and Howard agreed to the terms of a contract.

The agreement was signed May 10 to restore the rate to 35 cents a gallon and recognize the CIO cannery union as the bargaining agent for the workers.  Howard, whose auto had been burned and who had been run out of town more than once, signed for the union.

Tawes, who once said in 1931 that he would close the plant rather than accede to strikers’ demands, was a signatory.  The N. R. Carson Company, which had led the drive to reduce the rates, was another signer.  In all, the agreement signed by eight packinghouses covered well over half of the crabmeat pickers in Crisfield. It was among the first large seafood worker contracts on the East Coast.

Aftermath

The national cannery union had only been formed in 1937 and achieved explosive growth, particularly among African Americans in the South and migrant workers in the West. By the Spring of 1938 it had 347 locals and 118,000 members. The cannery union also made progress in Crisfield and was able to organize oyster shuckers at a number of plants in Crisfield by 1942.

The cannery union quickly came under attack for communist influence. US Rep. Martin Dies (D-TX), who chaired the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities, took testimony before his committee that named Dahl as a member of the Communist Party in 1938. In 1941, the Washington Post reported that the Dies committee named Michael Howard as a communist.

Leif Dahl, East Coast Cannery Union Leader: 1936

Leif Dahl, in charge of East Coast organizing for the CIO cannery union shown at a New Jersey meeting of agricultural workers in 1936. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The American Federation of Labor, in a bitter rivalry with the CIO at the time, sent in its own organizers to try to wrest some of the packinghouses from the CIO union and organize the unorganized. They gained a foothold at several packinghouses in Crisfield in the early 1940s, including the W. T. Handy Co., one of the larger packinghouses where the CIO had not obtained an agreement.

In 1944, the cannery union became the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America (FTA) and was by then a leader among unions for the rights of women. Sixty-six percent of the contracts nationwide contained “equal pay for equal work” provisions, 75% contained maternity leave without loss of seniority provisions, and 44% of its elected representatives in the food service division were women.

However, after World War II, the FTA came under vicious red-baiting attacks by AFL unions, employers and elected officials, and it began losing units as quickly as it had gained them in the late 1930s.

By 1948, the AFL Meat Cutters & Butcher Workman’s Seafood Workers Local 453 were voted as the exclusive bargaining agent for nearly all packinghouses in Crisfield including J. C W Tawes & Son and C W. Howeth, completely supplanting the CIO union.

In 1950, the FTA was expelled from the CIO with nine other unions for alleged communist influence. Already in decline, it fell apart quickly after the expulsion and its few remaining workers were folded into the Distributing and Processing Workers of America.

Seafood Workers Local 453 continued to represent the workers in Crisfield and made significant improvement in wages and working conditions from the 1950s until the end of the 1980s. However, the ongoing decline of the Chesapeake Bay crab and oyster harvests and the related closure of nearly all packinghouses meant a long, slow decline in membership.  The closure of a Mrs. Paul’s frozen fish plant put an end to the union in March 1990.

(This post was updated 12/10/2012 to include Addendum 2 as part of this post.)

(This post was updated 12/28/2012 to include the Labor Herald image  in Addendum 2)

Author’s Notes

This 1938 strike led by black women workers that ended in a tangible victory is remarkable for many reasons and it represents one of the few victories on Maryland’s Eastern Shore by African Americans fighting against determined resistance prior to the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

The material for this article is derived mainly from resources in the Maryland State Archives, the National Archives, The Crisfield Heritage Foundation, The Baltimore Sun, The Afro American, The Washington Post, Pedersen’s The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57, Reutter’s Making Steel, & Feltault’s It’s How You Pick the Crab.

Accounts of this strike would be strengthened by original material from the strikers themselves—oral history, letters, diaries etc.  Hopefully future researchers will bring more of this remarkable story to light.

Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College.  He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


Addendum I: Crisfield Heritage Foundation – “Returning Home: Photographs from 1938”

In Aug. 2009, a photography instructor in California who had historical images of the Crisfield area contacted the Tawes Museum.

They are well composed, high quality images taken during or immediately after the strike (a wall calendar in one of the photos is turned to May 1938). However, the photographer, purpose and how they ended up on the West Coast are unknown.

The style, subject matter and medium are similar to US Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information photographs from that period and cover most aspects of life in Crisfield.

Ten of the images are on permanent display at the Tawes Museum at 3 Ninth St. in Crisfield. Call ahead at (410) 968-2501 to arrange to see all of these stunning photos (there are 88 total images).

The images shown from the collection on this site are low-resolution, distorted versions of the photos and it is worth the trip to see the whole collection and the detail portrayed in the collection. The images shown on this site do not do the originals justice.

One of photos in the collection may show the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters marching in Crisfield, while others show farm life, scenes of the town, industry and the people who lived in that period, including a number of photographs related to the crab pickers strike.

The photographs in this series are property of the Crisfield Heritage Foundation. All rights are reserved.


Addendum 2: Michael Howard – Fighter for Workers

Crab Pickers Union Meeting in Crisfield: 1938

Union meeting at Shiloh ME Church in Crisfield MD, May 1938. Speaker is possibly Michael Howard. Original photo courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

Michael “Mike” Howard (formerly Smith—he took his wife’s last name when they married) joined the Young Communist League in 1932.

By 1936 he had joined the Communist Party (CP) and secured work at the Eastern Rolling Mill, a steel plant of about 1,000 workers just outside of Baltimore. Bethlehem Steel owned the plant and was fighting unionization tooth and nail at all its locations.

Howard put the first chink in the company armor when he successfully led a strike at the mill in 1936 that led to wage and benefit gains for the workers.  In 1937, he obtained union recognition for the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel & Tin Workers Local 1245 and signed the first contract as president of the local union.

He served as secretary-treasurer of the Baltimore Industrial Council, the umbrella group for CIO unions.

As an organizer for the cannery workers’ union, he traveled constantly through hostile territory on Maryland’s Eastern Shore . He helped guide the largely African American women crab pickers to victory in their 1938 five week strike against the Crisfield, Maryland packinghouses, despite being run out of town on several occasions and having his car overturned and burned.

In 1936, as a member of the CP, he helped a team recruit new CP members from Cumberland, MD at the huge Celanese Mill. They ended up forming much of the core for the successful CIO organizing in Western Maryland.  Howard became the liaison between the CIO and the Communist Party in Maryland.

Eastern Rolling Mill Strike Won: 1936

Howard led the strike at Eastern Rolling Mill to victory in 1936. Labor Herald, Vol. 1, No. 5, June 26, 1936.

As a CP member in 1936 he also volunteered to go door-to-door in East Baltimore to gain support for unionization at Sparrow’s Point, the massive mill in Dundalk outside of Baltimore. He worked briefly as an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America before securing employment himself at the Point.

He worked hard to persuade his co-workers to vote for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in a 1941 National Labor Relations Board election. Following the union victory, he was elected zone committeeman in charge of all grievances for 2,400 workers in the open hearth department, the biggest in the mill.  Notably while there he fought for promotions for black steelworkers. Eventually he was chosen to chair the whole mill’s grievance committee.

When President Harry Truman seized the coal mines during a 1946 strike and the Taft-Hartley anti-labor, anti-communist act passed in 1947, Howard felt Truman was moving to reverse all the gains that labor had made. He threw himself into the third party candidacy of Henry Wallace in 1948 and quit attending CP meetings when he felt they were not sufficiently backing Wallace’s candidacy.

The steelworkers union was backing Truman and promptly removed Howard as zone committeeman on trumped-up charges of malfeasance. In 1951 he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) where he refused to answer questions about individuals, despite the CP expelling him three years earlier.

The company didn’t fire him as he expected, but he was stung when his coworkers, whom he had fought so hard for, stopped speaking to him. Many eventually came back around but, in a 1982 interview with author Mark Reutter for the book Making Steel, he reflected:

Really, I thought I was fighting on a different level. I was fighting on a level which went to my Marxist beliefs, and I was working for them on a level which represented only their particular interactions with the company. And perhaps it shows what a poor job I did in radicalizing and politicizing the people in my department. Perhaps I should have done a better job of bringing the two together. I’m sure I could have done a better job than I did.

Isolated from his coworkers and his comrades and frozen out of his union, Howard quit the plant in 1953, went back to school, and later worked conducting experiments with precision instruments that he had first encountered in the steel mills. Michael Howard died on June 30, 1986.

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