“Better Wages and Job Conditions with Dignity”: Unionizing the Public Sector

In September 1968, inspired by a strike by African American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, six months earlier, garbage collectors in Baltimore launched a work stoppage of their own. And like their fellow workers to the south, Baltimore’s strikers demanded union recognition and better pay. A tragic event separated the two events, however. The protest in Memphis had attracted the participation of Martin Luther King Jr., who had commended the sanitation workers for demanding that their city “respect the dignity of labor” and had fully endorsed their cause. “It is criminal,” King told a Memphis audience, “to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.”1 The civil rights giant pledged to remain involved in the workers’ cause—and he had, until an assassin in Memphis took his life. King’s murder, as well as his words of support, surely reverberated in the minds of Baltimore’s sanitation workers a few months later as they marched the picket line. To honor the slain leader and the workers he championed and to compel sympathy for their own circumstances, Baltimore’s strikers carried placards identical to those used in Memphis. Their signs declared “I Am a Man” and demanded “Decency and Justice” as they marched for “better wages and job conditions with dignity.”2 They protested not just for themselves but for all of the municipal government’s low-wage workers whose labor enabled the city to function but whose incomes left some living in poverty.3

Just as the politicized “spirit of the times” of the 1960s inspired municipal employees in Baltimore to advocate with and on behalf of city residents with low incomes, so it empowered them to take action to better their own situations as workers. As the size of the public sector swelled during the 1960s throughout the nation, growing numbers of government workers turned to unionization as a means of improving the terms and conditions of their employment. In Baltimore, as elsewhere, some full-time public-sector workers earned so little that they qualified for welfare benefits. And even those with better pay knew their wages or salaries generally trailed those earned by workers in equivalent positions in the private sector or in wealthier jurisdictions. Meanwhile, much of the nation’s protective labor legislation, including the right to join a union, did not extend to government workers. As employees of the people rather than “the man,” government workers historically had been seen as relatively invulnerable to exploitation. During the 1960s, however, many government workers came to feel that their interests were not taken seriously enough by elected officials. Government workers demanded the right to collectively bargain over issues including wages; fringe benefits, such as health insurance and sick leave; workplace safety; and bias and favoritism in hiring, promotion, and firing. At the same time that many public service providers were championing community participation in municipal affairs, government workers also fought for a role in decision-making that affected their futures.

In Baltimore, African Americans such as Raymond Clarke and Dennis Crosby played leading roles in the efforts to win union rights for municipal workers. And the receptivity of Black workers to their organizing overtures evinces the considerable faith many put in the power of collective bargaining. As historian Lane Windham argues, many African Americans of the era saw no contradiction between advocating for both individual civil rights and collective union rights.4 In Baltimore, those in the public sector were particularly assertive in seeking unionization, but they were hardly the only workers in the city with that goal. Low-wage service providers in the private sector, most notably many African American women employed in health care, also actively sought union representation during the late 1960s. Having gained increased access to jobs in the mainstream economy during the 1960s, many Black workers lost no time before fighting for the protections and benefits they believed their new employers should provide, and they looked to unions to achieve that end. Successful union drives, particularly those in the public sector, had considerable significance for local Black communities given the increased presence of African Americans in the government workforce and the otherwise bleak labor market in the deindustrializing city. And the Baltimore workers’ victories had national implications as well. As the fortunes of the predominantly white and male unionized industrial workforce waned, government employees in Baltimore, as elsewhere, breathed new life into the American labor movement. And they served as a vanguard for many other low-wage public- and private-sector service workers, predominantly women and people of color, who sought union representation in the decades that followed.

But not everyone in Baltimore understood growth, activism, and unionization in the public sector as positive developments. Some, including many conservatives, believed the changes—in combination with the victories of activists pursuing other progressive causes such as civil rights—came at their expense. And some were clearly threatened and angered by Black advancement. The riots and rebellions that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King as well as concerns that urban crime rates appeared to be on the rise heightened many whites’ long-held suspicions of African Americans. Defenders of white supremacy had long attempted to delegitimize Black protest by equating it with criminality, and it did not take long for whites, not only in Baltimore but throughout Maryland, to conflate activism in the public sector and strikes by government workers with “riots” and crime. The sentiments reinforced conservative claims that criminality and lawlessness increasingly characterized rusting cities and their African American residents. Those harboring or receptive to such views in Maryland found a spokesperson in their state’s governor, Spiro Agnew, who rose to national prominence in 1968 as a voice of the “silent majority.” As African Americans in Baltimore attempted to capitalize on their new influence over the municipal agenda to win public policies to fight poverty and simultaneously worked to build public-sector unions that would protect the economic interests of a significant portion of the city’s Black working and middle classes, the governor of their state championed a backlash gravely detrimental to the efforts.

“The People Who Need It Most”: Public-Sector Unionization in Baltimore

During the 1960s, labor activism among public-sector workers nationwide reached unprecedented heights. Unions representing government employees were not new, however. Instead, some public-sector unions shared early twentieth-century origins with many of their private-sector counterparts. Government officials were not obligated to recognize public-sector unions, however, and in some cases, they were specifically prohibited from doing so. In addition, government workers were largely excluded from New Deal legislation, which created Social Security and unemployment insurance and established the minimum wage and overtime procedures. The nation’s history of antiradicalism helps to explain why the United States trailed most industrialized countries in granting recognition to government unions; opponents argued that unionization would lead to communist subversion of the government. In Baltimore, for example, business leaders responded to an organizing drive among municipal workers during the Great Depression by charging that “100% communistic” and “foreign elements” were bent on taking over the city.5 Historian Joseph Slater notes that such claims were common in the United States but also often disingenuous; outspoken critics of government unions frequently expressed equally as hostile sentiments about private-sector unions. Nevertheless, the red-baiting met with success in Baltimore as elsewhere.6 As a result, although public-sector unions sometimes wielded unofficial negotiating power, as was the case in Baltimore, most did not win recognition until the 1960s.7

Early unionization campaigns occurred among state and federal workers in the Baltimore area as well. Efforts to win union recognition from Maryland officials made almost no headway. In fact, in 1941, concern about public-sector union activism led the Maryland General Assembly to consider legislation that would punish participants in public-sector strikes as harshly as the state censured those convicted of treason. Resistance to public-sector unionism remained fierce in Annapolis well beyond the postwar years, and state workers did not win union rights until the 1990s. Federal unions had greater success. Postal unions had a long and proud history in the United States and counted many Baltimore workers among their members. And a federal union had acted on behalf of Social Security employees since at least the early 1940s. The extent to which federal unions could achieve their goals, however, depended entirely on the largesse of individual agency administrators.8

Employee associations and professional organizations existed in Baltimore and Maryland alongside public-sector unions and also wielded a measure of influence in labor relations. The Classified Municipal Employees Association (CMEA) courted members from among the city’s white, nonlaboring, and non–per diem employees. The Maryland Classified Employees Association (MCEA) sought members in similar positions on the state level and was likely also an exclusively white organization. Both CMEA and MCEA began as social groups, and neither adopted the adversarial stance toward elected officials more typical of the unions.9 The racist membership requirement of the CMEA was doubtlessly one reason why African American classified workers in Baltimore created the Association of Classified Municipal Employees, which by 1942 boasted a membership of almost one thousand. Teachers and nurses also formed organizations in the city prior to 1960.10

Racist membership requirements in government workers’ organizations served as an obstacle to Black advancement and the increased strength of the public-sector labor movement. By the early 1960s, all public-sector unions and employee associations appear to have been integrated, but the change had not come without a fight. Under pressure from the city’s Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), CMEA had disavowed its whites-only membership requirement in 1960 but also refused to admit that it had ever discriminated.11 The same year, and also under pressure from the EEOC, the Baltimore Firefighters Association (part of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) agreed to admit African American members. But the union demanded twenty-five dollars in back dues from veteran Black firefighters. “Why should firefighters be penalized for not joining a union when they were prevented from doing so by that union?” demanded an outraged Troy Brailey, the chair of the labor committee of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP and the president of the Maryland chapter of the Negro-American Labor Council.12 The Black firefighters took their complaint to the national leadership of the AFL-CIO and won support for their case. In the end, they paid only the ten-dollar fee the union charged to other new members.13

The showdowns that pitted the EEOC against the employee organization and firefighters’ union reveal African Americans’ interest in collective organizing but also the tense state of race relations within the municipal workforce and its labor movement. Public-sector union organizers would have to tread carefully if they hoped to grow their organizations during the 1960s. The local leadership of AFSCME was intimately familiar with the city’s racial minefields. Raymond Clarke became the president of Baltimore’s AFSCME Local 44 in 1962, two years after he and other union representatives launched a major organizing drive in the city. Clarke, who was African American, had been a chauffeur-foreman in the Bureau of Sanitation when he joined the union, and he was certainly no stranger to the city’s racial politics; he had grown up in Baltimore. He was a fierce advocate of the labor movement, he later explained, because his father had been a union man. Clarke knew firsthand the benefits unionization could accrue to working families. As a result, when the International Brotherhood of Teamsters had begun organizing a union among sanitation workers in Baltimore, Clarke quickly joined the effort. He then helped spearhead AFSCME’s organizing drive. Other African Americans, including Earlyne Moir, a nurse at the Baltimore City Hospital—who was a rare woman among the union’s predominantly male leaders—also served terms as officers during the early 1960s.14

The white leadership of AFSCME on the state level also had familiarity with race relations in Baltimore as well as backgrounds in the private-sector labor movement. During World War II, P. J. Ciampa and Ernest Crofoot had been affiliated with the United Automobile Workers when members of that union and local civil rights leaders successfully won jobs for African Americans at Glenn L. Martin Company, an aircraft-producing firm in the city. Crofoot described the experience as formative in terms of his own awareness of race relations. Later, once they moved to AFSCME, Ciampa became the director of field services and then an area director, and Crofoot became the president of AFSCME’s Council 62, which included Clarke’s Baltimore local. Crofoot also later served as an international vice president of AFSCME. During much of the 1960s, Clarke, Ciampa, and Crofoot used their familiarity with the city’s racial politics, knowledge of the municipal workforce, and organizing skills to grow AFSCME’s membership rolls and increase the union’s influence in local and state politics.15

Despite lacking official recognition from the city, AFSCME leaders aggressively fought on behalf of municipal workers during the early and mid-1960s. They organized among hourly rather than salaried workers and took considerable pride in working on behalf of the city’s lowest-paid employees. The leaders consistently demanded raises and full payment of workers’ medical and life insurance policies. They also called for a city-financed unemployment insurance system, pension benefit, and disability policy. Further, they pressed the city to consider seniority in promotion decisions, fought to increase fringe benefits and overtime allowances, and tried to get the city to extend some benefits to per diem employees. In addition, AFSCME officials joined the city’s civil rights leaders and the staff of the Community Relations Commission (formerly the EEOC) in protesting racial discrimination in civil-service testing procedures.16

AFSCME also challenged as discriminatory the city government’s failure to train and then promote low-level workers. The city’s tendency to keep unskilled workers in dead-end jobs and to hire new workers for vacant skilled positions reinforced racial- and gender-based segmentation in the municipal workforce. To counter the problem, AFSCME International secured federal funding for programs to prepare low-wage employees for higher-paid positions. In Baltimore, AFSCME trained custodial workers to become operation engineers, and union leaders convinced the Civil Service Commission to honor the license the union awarded those who successfully completed the program. (The program’s graduation ceremonies could reduce burly union members to tears, Crofoot recalled, as licensure created access to promotions never before possible.17) Thus, even before they secured official recognition from the city, AFSCME leaders had made considerable gains on behalf of low-wage workers. The efforts won the union new members from a range of municipal agencies. AFSCME attracted school cafeteria workers in addition to custodians, patient aides in addition to orderlies, and employees of the Department of Welfare in addition to prison guards. As a result, the union won many female as well as male members and large numbers of African Americans. It also grew to include many who were fighting the war on poverty as well as those staffing the city’s criminal justice system—even as those groups increasingly represented opposing sides in debates over appropriate responses to urban poverty.18

Meanwhile, on the national level, AFSCME officials, such as the union’s president Jerry Wurf and secretary-treasurer William “Bill” Lucy, often aligned personally and also affiliated their union with politically progressive causes. Wurf, a white native of Brooklyn, became the president of AFSCME International in 1964. He had become a union organizer as a young man and had helped to establish the first state chapter of CORE in New York. In 1958, after becoming the president of AFSCME’s District Council 37 in New York City, Wurf helped win collective-bargaining rights for municipal workers in that city. As the president of AFSCME International, Wurf worked with and then served alongside Lucy, who Ebony magazine often described as one of the nation’s top one hundred most influential African Americans. Lucy was born in Memphis in 1933 and grew up in California. After attending the University of California, Berkeley, he became an engineer with a county government and then joined the public-sector labor movement in the mid-1950s. He served as the president of his local union before moving into leadership roles in AFSCME International. In 1972, he cofounded the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and in 1994, he served as the president of Public Services International, a coalition of unions representing government service providers around the world.19 Together, Wurf and Lucy transformed AFSCME International into a nationally prominent union. With its membership base in large cities, AFSCME officials closely tracked and lobbied on behalf of urban policies. AFSCME International also partnered with the National Welfare Rights Organization in policy fights and to improve relationships between service providers and recipients. Under Wurf’s admittedly sometimes caustic leadership and guided by Lucy’s incisive analyses of complex political issues, AFSCME became one of the most important unions in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s.20

Although on the national level their union sometimes engaged in coalitional politics, on the ground in Baltimore, local AFSCME leaders largely confined themselves to addressing the bread-and-butter concerns of their members and potential members. The union’s influence in city hall was increasing during the mid-1960s, but it was hardly secure, with growth and eventually union recognition top priorities. Local AFSCME leaders did not consistently seek common cause with public-service recipients or connect claims for higher wages with demands for improved government services. Instead, they considered their efforts on behalf of low-wage workers a critical component of the larger struggle for racial and economic justice. In 1965, for example, Crofoot denounced the city for paying male custodial workers in the public schools between $2,628 and $3,336 and female custodial workers between $2,052 to $2,628 per year. The Johnson administration had recently declared $3,000 the national poverty level. Full-time municipal employment should at the very least raise workers out of poverty.21

Unlike those affiliated with AFSCME, the leadership and members of organizations representing Baltimore’s public-school teachers overtly linked their demands for better working conditions with efforts to improve the quality of the services they provided. Despite their lack of official recognition from the city, like other organizations representing municipal employees, the Baltimore Teachers Union (BTU) and the Public School Teachers Association (PSTA) had long advocated on behalf of their members. During the 1960s, they also engaged in activism to improve urban education, and they called for increased local and state spending on public schools. To be sure, teachers had a vested interest in working for a well-resourced school district. Nonetheless, their concerns about the impacts of the city’s shrinking tax base and mounting urban problems on the quality of the public education in the city were more than self-serving. Members of the two groups, who were relentlessly at odds with one another over their divergent approaches to labor relations, fought to ensure that young people in Baltimore had access to educational opportunities of the same quality as children elsewhere.22

Members of the BTU which was affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and PSTA, which was affiliated with the National Education Association (NEA), pursued different strategies in their efforts to improve local schools. Their divergent tactics—and the rivalry between them—mirrored the tense relationship between their national-level parent organizations. BTU attracted a disproportionately male membership and a large number of high school teachers. The union tended to adopt the confrontational stance of the AFT and advocated for policy changes intended to combat urban poverty and empower and engage African American students. To compensate for funding mechanisms detrimental to children from Baltimore and other relatively poor districts in Maryland, BTU officials demanded that the state legislature use subsidies to equalize spending across jurisdictions. BTU also championed the community schools model that the city ultimately did in part adopt.23

The union’s concern with African American students and history reflected not only the concerns of both the local membership and AFT, which had a long history of fighting racism and segregation, but also the expertise of Dennis Crosby, who became the president of BTU in the mid-1960s. Crosby, an African American high school teacher, was a member of CORE and had served as the chair of that organization’s education committee. Under his leadership, BTU partnered with CORE and ran a Freedom School during the summer of 1966. The staff of the school sponsored discussions on racial justice and taught Black history. AFT previously had sent volunteer teachers to Freedom Schools in Virginia, Mississippi, and elsewhere in the South. In Baltimore, until 1964 a Jim Crow city, BTU members could simply commute from home to address the deficiencies of an education system inadequately concerned with the interests of Black children.24

Members of PSTA, a fiercely proud professional organization, also fought to improve the quality of the city’s public schools. In 1966, the six-thousand-member-strong organization issued sanctions against the Baltimore school system, promising to lift them “only when it can be assured that adequate financial support for the schools will be forthcoming.”25 The teachers imposed the sanctions through work-to-contract measures; they did nothing beyond the tasks specifically assigned to them in their employment contracts to call attention to the extent to which they had been personally compensating for their underfunded schools. Then, shortly after they announced their sanctions, three thousand members, many of them women and elementary school teachers, rallied at city hall. Their efforts to improve the schools won the endorsement of the Maryland School Teachers Association and the NEA, which added its own sanctions on the city. The organization declared, “The public school system of Baltimore is so extremely deficient that many of the children of the city are being denied the minimum level of educational opportunity to which every child is entitled.”26 Although city officials disputed the claims, they did increase funding for the city schools to have the sanctions withdrawn.27

While teachers met with some success in their efforts to improve the quality of the services they delivered and the terms of their employment, the fact that their organizations participated in discussions with the city only at the discretion of elected officials became a point of deepening contention. During the second half of the 1960s, members of municipal unions—and some in associations as well—began to prioritize the fight for union recognition and collective-bargaining rights. Municipal workers took inspiration from the achievement of their counterparts in the federal workforce. Following a decades-long campaign by federal workers’ unions for recognition, President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10988 in 1962. The order extended limited collective-bargaining rights to nearly two million federal employees. Workers seized the opportunity, and the membership rolls of previously unrecognized federal unions grew quickly. By 1965, the nation’s postal unions had a combined membership of 180,000, and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), among the largest of the federal unions, included 150,000 members.28

Kennedy’s executive order had immediate ramifications in Baltimore beyond the inspiration it provided to municipal workers. Local 1923 of AFGE became the bargaining agent for workers at Social Security’s headquarters. By 1965, more than 8,500 Baltimore-area workers were represented by the local, which Social Security employees believed to be the biggest in the nation representing white-collar workers. Kennedy’s executive order also galvanized Baltimore’s postal workers, and in 1963, the Post Office Department began negotiating with several postal unions that had prevailed in local contests. Although unions had been unofficially representing federal workers for decades, recognition conferred legitimacy, and the promise of union-negotiated contracts enhanced the security of federal employment. The development was important for all federal workers and particularly for African Americans. In Baltimore, jobs at Social Security had long been a source of coveted employment, particularly among women, and civil rights activists had monitored and fought discrimination at the agency since its founding. Meanwhile the post office was the nation’s largest employer of African Americans during much of the 1960s. The increased wages and fringe benefits federal unions won grew and strengthened the Black middle and working classes and were critical to the economic health of Baltimore’s African American communities during the era of deindustrialization.29

Following the lead of federal workers’ unions, in Baltimore, locals of AFSCME and AFT championed collective-bargaining rights for municipal employees. Ultimately, the BTU was the first to crack the city council’s resistance to unionization. In December 1966, the BTU formally and forcefully requested that the city schedule an election between itself and the PSTA and agree to negotiate with the winner. The following May, Crosby and his members staged a one-day strike. One hundred thirty people were arrested, a third of them women, and 1,200 out of 7,200 teachers did not report for work. In response to the mounting pressure, the city council agreed to schedule an election, which BTU won. As was the case at Social Security, unionization enhanced the well-being of all workers represented by unions. It also helped make the Department of Education, which employed significant numbers of African Americans, particularly women, an even more important source of economic security than it already had been.30

Following the city’s decision to grant collective bargaining to teachers, public-sector labor leaders in Maryland took their case to Annapolis and demanded that state legislators grant all government workers union rights. They did not meet with success. The legislators did pass a law requiring all jurisdictions in Maryland to recognize and negotiate with teachers’ organizations. They did not, however, extend the protection to other public-sector employees. Despite persistent efforts, union leaders in Maryland were unable to win a place for public-sector collective-bargaining rights in the state’s new constitution, which was completed in 1968. Moreover, a “Little Wagner Act” for public employees that would have guaranteed union recognition sat stalled in committee, held hostage by the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Builders and Contractors of Maryland.31 The failures angered AFSCME officials in particular, who were frustrated that middle-class teachers had won a right that low-wage employees lacked. As Harold Shaw, an AFSCME official, later recalled, “It just [didn’t] make sense that the people who needed it most [didn’t] have it.”32

Without state-level protection, AFSCME officials turned their attention to campaigns on the local level. In Baltimore, AFSCME’s Clarke and Crofoot championed the fight for collective-bargaining rights. Although the city’s new mayor, Thomas D’Alesandro III, endorsed collective bargaining during his 1967 campaign, union leaders faced opposition from the majority of the members of the city council.33 As AFSCME and other union leaders pressed their case, events to their south soon diverted their attention.

In February 1968, 1,300 sanitation workers in Memphis walked off the job following the deaths of two of their coworkers, who were crushed in the back of a malfunctioning garbage truck. The striking workers, all African American, demanded union recognition, improved workplace safety measures, and an increase in their wages, which were so low for many that they qualified for public assistance. The workers, who had been organized by Thomas Oliver “T. O.” Jones, were affiliated with AFSCME. Initially, AFSCME International officials expressed alarm at the sanitation workers’ walkout and hoped to convince those striking to return to work; no plans or resources were in place to sustain a strike. Visits by Ciampa and Wurf to Memphis and their encounters with the city’s white mayor Henry Loeb, his segregationist supporters, and the workers themselves changed their minds. Loeb and his supporters were arrogantly indifferent to the hardships borne by sanitation workers and evinced what the workers derided as a “plantation mentality”; white elected officials and city residents seemed to assume it natural that African Americans would occupy a submissive and inferior position in society.34 Outraged by the mayor’s insensitivity and hubris, Wurf endorsed the strike and promised the workers the full support of AFSCME International. The strike also had won the support of members of the local African American community, including Reverend James Lawson, who invited his friend Martin Luther King to visit Memphis and meet with the striking workers.35

Witnessing the sanitation workers’ fierce defense of their dignity and right to a decent standard of living, King found a cause he readily embraced. He had recently begun work organizing a Poor People’s Campaign because he wanted to call attention to the persistence of economic injustice in the United States. As he explained to the striking sanitation workers at a rally on their behalf, “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality.… It isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”36 King worried that economic injustice—full-time wages that did not lift workers out of poverty, miserly welfare allowances that trapped people in poverty, and the inadequate availability of jobs, for example—imperiled the promise of the United States and squandered the talents of its citizens. In Memphis’s striking sanitation workers and their supporters, he identified a community taking a bold and noble stand against the problems that most threatened the nation.

King’s support for the strike brought the workers, AFSCME, and the cause of public-sector unionization national attention. It also validated for workers the righteousness of their cause. Tragically, it was during a trip to Memphis on behalf of the sanitation workers in April 1968 that an assassin took King’s life. His death sent shock waves across the nation. It also hastened the resolution of the Memphis strike—although not immediately. Even on the evening of King’s death, the mayor remained firm in his refusal to grant union recognition. Only pressure from the federal government and a silent march of more than forty thousand people in his city led by Coretta Scott King and other leaders compelled the mayor to reluctantly capitulate. The victory was bittersweet, but the sanitation workers had won.37

King’s assassination prompted rioting and rebellion in many cities across the nation, and Baltimore was no exception. In that city, two days after King’s death, protest, looting, and arson broke out in an African American neighborhood in East Baltimore. Maryland governor Spiro Agnew responded by declaring a state of emergency, establishing a curfew, and calling up the Maryland National Guard. The disorder, which many called riots but which those sympathetic to the latent and articulated political ambitions of the participants called uprisings or rebellions, soon spread to other sections of the city with predominantly Black populations. In response, D’Alesandro requested that President Lyndon Johnson send army troops to the city. Meanwhile, as the former mayor later recalled, many of the city’s African American ministers and leaders walked the streets in an effort to quell the violence. The bulk of the disorder persisted for only a few days. Nevertheless, over the course of two weeks, six people died; more than 5,500 were arrested, most for curfew violations; and the city accrued over $12 million in damages.38

King’s murder prompted organized as well as unorganized protest. Particularly noteworthy was a surge in activism among low-wage private- and public-sector workers, many of whom owed their jobs to the nation’s expanding welfare state and the jobs it created. Some of the workers had been seeking union recognition since before King’s death. A little over a year following her husband’s murder, Coretta Scott King visited Baltimore to help low-wage health care workers win union rights from the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Although one of the top-rated hospitals in the nation, Johns Hopkins was, in the words of Annie Henry, an African American employee at the time, “not a nice place to work.” She recalled, “They assumed that because you were doing a menial job that you were an ignorant person, but that was not the case.”39 Buoyed by Coretta King’s endorsement, the workers won their campaign in December 1969. They were represented by the Hospital and Nursing Homes Employee Union, Local 1199E, which later merged with the Service Employees International Union, and the union continued to organize low-wage workers during the decades that followed.40

Meanwhile, AFSCME leaders had redoubled their efforts on behalf of unionization for municipal employees in Baltimore. King’s endorsement of their goal, and his death while in pursuit of it, lent their cause both moral legitimacy and a sense of urgency. Mounting political pressure and the mayor’s support for collective bargaining made the city council’s endorsement of public-sector union recognition a near inevitability in 1968. What remained to be determined, however, was with which organization or organizations the city would eventually negotiate. D’Alesandro indicated that he would prefer to bargain with a single entity, which intensified already fierce rivalries among the unions and organizations representing municipal workers.41 Local AFSCME officials had returned from Memphis primed for battle, and many of the city’s African American sanitation workers hardly needed encouragement to take a bold and principled stance on their own behalf. What followed in September was a four-day strike for a cause that had largely already been won.42

The Baltimore strike, which sanitation workers initiated, quickly attracted the participation of municipal employees in the departments of highways, parks, and sewers. On the first day of the strike about 1,750 city employees joined the sanitation workers, with a larger number participating the following day.43 Even some CMEA members walked the AFSCME-led picket line.44 To be sure, Baltimore was not Memphis. The Department of Public Works had long been a source of patronage jobs in the city, and more than 40 percent of Baltimore’s sanitation workers were white. An “I AM a Man” placard in the hands of a white man did not have quite the same resonance that it had had when carried by a Memphis sanitation worker. Moreover, the recently appointed director of the Department of Public Works, F. Pierce Linaweaver, was himself African American. Nevertheless, like their counterparts in Memphis, many of Baltimore’s low-wage Black male workers who launched the strike did so to protest their exploitation and defend their dignity.

As the strike was under way, about thirty-five Black leaders met to debate the role they should play. Among the groups represented were the NAACP, BUL, CORE, Civic Interest Group, Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, and U-JOIN. Some in the meeting, including several agency heads and program administrators as well as Roger Brown, the president of the AFSCME-affiliated social workers local that unofficially bargained with state legislators, were public-sector employees themselves. Their dual status as government workers and prominent activists put the leaders in a bind as they risked jeopardizing their jobs by endorsing an illegal strike. As a result, a reporter from the Afro-American was the only member of the press allowed to cover the meeting. Ultimately, the group voted unanimously to support the strike, and Walter Lively of U-JOIN became the head of a newly formed Concerned Citizens’ Committee. The striking workers’ concerns, Lively explained, were “an issue of survival.”45 In the end, the Concerned Citizen Committee played an instrumental role in bringing the strike to an end. The city agreed to a wage increase that benefited about 1,500 workers, and the strike hastened the city council’s decision to grant municipal employees collective-bargaining privileges. Ten days after the strike’s resolution, the council approved union elections, and D’Alesandro signed legislation granting union recognition on September 30, 1968. And given the rivalries among groups claiming to represent municipal workers, the city agreed to bargain with multiple organizations instead of a single union.46

Although they had participated in BTU’s earlier strike, had been active in AFSCME’s local organizing drives, and had a history of protesting the terms of their municipal employment, women did not participate in the 1968 work stoppage. Perhaps in light of Memphis, they viewed it the sanitation workers’ hour. Like men, however, women certainly benefited from the strike’s resolution. In the union elections that followed, workers from multiple departments, including public works and education, chose to be represented by AFSCME, as did employees in the city’s jail and hospitals. After the votes were counted, AFSCME’s membership total reached ten thousand. CMEA, which abandoned its no-strike clause and officially became a union during the strike, won uncontested elections among classified workers. Teachers’ aides voted to join the BTU. Two firefighters’ unions and a professional nursing organization also became official bargaining agents for city workers, and an AFSCME-affiliated union represented police officers.47

Collective-bargaining rights did not result in dramatic changes in city workers’ wages, benefits, and working conditions. After all, public-sector unions and organizations informally had been winning improvements for decades. Union recognition did, however, gain city workers the right to be represented in future deliberations critical to their economic well-being. The workers “who needed it most” had secured protections recently won by federal employees and teachers. The change bolstered the status of all union members but was particularly important for African Americans. As the industrial sector of their city continued to decline, a significant contingent of Black workers had gained for themselves a relatively safe haven in the local labor market. Discrimination certainly persisted, yet unionized government jobs enabled a growing number of Black families to experience upward mobility, buy houses, and send children to college. And at the same time, Baltimore’s municipal workers helped make AFSCME one of the fastest-growing and most vibrant unions in the nation.

Together the private- and public-sector labor activism in Baltimore during the late 1960s represented a turning point in the history of the American labor movement. Although accelerating deindustrialization did not bode well for the fate of the predominantly white and male members of industrial unions, upon whose fortunes the labor movement had long rested, new energy and enthusiasm for collective action on the part of workers of color and white women in the low-wage private and public service sectors served as a force for potential rejuvenation.48 And from their relatively advantaged position in the public sector, government workers were taking the lead. Although historian Jefferson Cowie describes the 1970s as “the last days of the working class,” during that decade in Baltimore, working-class private- and public-sector service employees, many of them African American and women, were just getting started.49

“Civic Chaos” and “Permissiveness”: The Backlash Against Changes in the Public Sector

The expansion and unionization of the municipal workforce did not uniformly strike Baltimore city residents and the citizens of Maryland as improvements. Alternatively, some associated government growth and collective bargaining with rising taxes that were used to cover the cost of bloated bureaucracies rather than with needed services and jobs. Simultaneously, some viewed the riots and rebellion that occurred in Baltimore and other cities during the 1960s as evidence that the War on Poverty was not only failing but also engendering a culture of entitlement and lawlessness among poor African Americans. Fear of rising urban crime rates exacerbated the notion that cities and their Black residents were becoming ungovernable and falling sway to the influence of radical Black nationalists. Meanwhile, public-sector unionization also raised the specter for some observers of outsider influence over local affairs. To those harboring such suspicions, the sanitation workers’ strike appeared little more than a sequel to the disorder that had followed King’s assassination. Certainly taxpayers had legitimate grounds for monitoring public spending and objecting to waste or abuse. Yet like conservative city council members, many critics of the recent changes seemed to automatically assume that government unions and social programs that served and were staffed by large numbers of African Americans were inefficient and corrupt. The suspicions exacerbated an ongoing backlash among whites to civil rights victories. Fearful that the government was rescinding its commitment to them while giving African Americans special privileges, angry whites aimed their ire at an expanding pool of targets during the late 1960s.50 Not just rioters but also strikers, Black antipoverty workers, and low-income service recipients became suspect. Agnew became a spokesperson for conservative white anger. In fact, Agnew rose to national prominence due to his willingness to aggressively condemn African American protest in Baltimore.

The uprising that followed King’s assassination and then the sanitation workers’ strike occurred at a time when many in Baltimore and Maryland at large already were harboring deep concerns about growing urban crime rates. The fear had at least three sources. Some was the result of manipulation. During the 1950s, southern whites alarmed by civil rights advances deliberately stoked the racist notion that African Americans were somehow innately prone to criminality. They sought anticrime legislation in an effort to undermine the civil rights movement.51 Racist rhetoric about crime was reinforced in Baltimore by a procedural change carried out by the police department. In keeping with national trends, the department instituted protocols that required officers to report all crimes they encountered and rescinded their authority to exercise reporting discretion. As a result, the policy change artificially increased crime rates. At the same time, however, evidence does suggest that the rates of some crimes were indeed rising in U.S. cities.52 Racist hype, the procedural change, and actual increases in criminal activity all contributed to mounting anxieties that the nation’s cities were crime-ridden.

In Baltimore, African Americans and whites as well as liberals and conservatives shared alarm over the crime problem, yet the solutions they proposed often differed. Many of the city’s liberal leaders largely concurred with the authors of the Kerner Report, which Lyndon Johnson commissioned to determine the causes of the urban “riots” of the mid-1960s. The authors associated crime with unmet expectations and a lack of economic opportunity. Convinced of the same logic, African Americans who were engaged in Baltimore’s War on Poverty tended to propose community involvement in policing and social programs to combat crime. Alternatively, conservatives, including members of the Baltimore City Council, tended to advocate harsher criminal justice policies, such as stiffer sentencing to fight crime. They also blamed individuals rather than context for criminal behavior.53

The policy debates in Baltimore mirrored those under way on the federal level. Johnson, under pressure from his advisers that he “start acting less like a social worker and more like a cop” in the wake of the growing concerns, began making increasingly bolder calls for anticrime legislation during the second half of the 1960s.54 In 1967, he proposed anticrime legislation. The measure called for federal grants for training programs for local officers, gun control, prisoner rehabilitation, and other initiatives. As the bill made its way through Congress, however, Republicans and southern Democrats led by Representatives Everett Dirksen and Gerald Ford, dramatically transformed it. In the end, the law that Johnson signed was far more punitive than the original bill had been. The new legislation extended the reach of the federal government over crime control far into local and state law enforcement agencies. And as historian Elizabeth Hinton argues, even before Johnson left office, his War on Poverty was giving way to a War on Crime.55

Fear of rising crime rates led some in Baltimore not only to demand tougher crime policies but also to complain that their hard-earned tax dollars were being squandered on antipoverty programs that did not seem to work. Despite the city’s success at winning federal aid, during the 1960s, the city’s tax rates were well above those in surrounding suburbs. Baltimore was its own jurisdiction rather than part of a larger county. It was also home to a considerable number of residents with low income. The city’s population of taxpayers had to help cover the cost of the maintenance of the city’s infrastructure, regular budget items, and the municipal government’s contribution to antipoverty efforts. Rising tax rates accelerated white flight, and many of those who left were homeowners. To those homeowners who remained fell the increasingly weighty burden of paying for costly public services and the growing municipal payroll.56 Critics voiced their frustration by complaining of freeloaders. As Harry How Jr. wrote to Mayor McKeldin in 1967, “I am against any of my tax money being used for someone who doesn’t want to work. How long do you think the people of Baltimore City are going to put up with your give away programs of Anti-Poverty, welfare and unemployment.”57

The increasing size of the municipal workforce also attracted conservative ire. In 1966, the Commission on Governmental Efficiency and Economy, a conservative business organization with a long history in the city, complained that Baltimore had the largest number of municipal employees among cities of its size in the nation. The following year, the News-American, a major Baltimore newspaper with a large white, working-class readership, reported sarcastically that the city was losing three thousand residents but adding a thousand municipal workers annually. The paper estimated that one out of eleven city residents worked for the city. “But once the employee is hired, no checks are made to see if that employee is writing love letters all day or performing his job efficiently,” the reporter complained.58 Many city residents had long harbored suspicion of welfare recipients, and the hostility only grew as Black and white DPW workers added previously neglected low-income African Americans to the rolls. In addition, as the ranks of the public sector swelled, and as African Americans filled many of the new positions—particularly in human-services agencies—the suspicions of conservative whites began to grow to include public-service providers.

The man who rose to represent the mounting white backlash in Maryland was Governor Spiro Agnew. Ironically, Agnew, a Baltimore native, had won the governorship in 1966 in large measure because his Democratic opponent was a segregationist. George Mahoney, a Baltimore contractor and frequent political candidate, ran on the slogan “Your home is your castle—protect it,” a declaration intended to communicate his opposition to open housing and other civil rights measures.59 His primary victory in a three-way contest led some Democrats, including African Americans, to cross party lines on Election Day. At the time, many considered Agnew a fairly moderate Republican. Moderation was not evident, however, in his reactions two years later to the uprising in Baltimore that followed King’s assassination. He blamed the disorder on “riot-inciting, burn-down-America” Black militants and a culture of entitlement and permissiveness.60 Contributing to the discourse that linked African Americans with cultural deviance and criminality, Agnew asserted that riots were “caused in too many cases by evil men and not evil conditions.”61

Days later, as the nation was still reeling from the shock of King’s death, Agnew pushed the envelope further. At a public meeting to which many of the city’s self-described “moderate” Black leaders had been invited, and at which they expected to be updated on plans for the aftermath of the disorder, Agnew lashed out again—directly at the African American attendees, a group that included stalwarts of the Baltimore civil rights movement, such as Lillie May Jackson and her daughter Juanita Mitchell.62 Their fear of being “stung by insinuations that [they] were Mr. Charlie’s boy, by epitaphs like ‘Uncle Tom’” had prevented them from preventing the riots, Agnew angrily charged.63 Stunned by a diatribe that then turned to lampooning “militant” activists, most of the African Americans walked out. “He’s got to be out of his mind,” commented Brailey to a reporter as he exited.64 “Agnew Insults Leaders” read the front-page headline of the Afro-American following the exchange.65 The paper’s editorial board expressed outrage and accused the governor of acting “out of blind anger or sheer stupidity.… We reject out of hand any talking down to us, paternalism, condescension, or scolding whether it flows from the lips of kings or beggars,” the editors pronounced.66

Having been trounced by Maryland’s Black leaders as well as some liberal whites, Agnew kept a low profile on matters pertaining to Baltimore following the meeting. The sanitation workers’ strike, however, reignited his ire. Although he kept his distance from Baltimore, he nonetheless seized the moment of the strike to reiterate the law-and-order rhetoric for which he was gaining notoriety. AFSCME’s illegal strike was “another indication of the breakdown of duly constituted authority in our society,” the governor declared.67 Whereas King had identified in the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike a community taking a bold stance on behalf of the dignity of labor, Agnew saw in Baltimore’s predominantly Black strikers criminality and an instinct to incite to mayhem. And he was hardly alone. The News-American responded to the strike by proclaiming, “Baltimore today is experiencing the civic chaos which goes hand in hand with one form of the permissiveness which engulfs our modern society.”68 The interchangeable rhetoric Agnew and others used to describe the disorder and the strike reflects the extent to which Black protest was being simultaneously criminalized and trivialized.

Emboldened by the changing political tides to which Agnew gave voice, the conservative members of the city council began to push back against federal antipoverty agencies in the city and the influential activists within them. In June 1968, Parren Mitchell announced his resignation from the top post of the CAA. Although he cited “strangling bureaucracy” as a major source of his decision, it also soon became clear that he intended to pursue elected office as the means to securing the progressive changes he sought.69 On the recommendation of the members of the CAC, D’Alesandro nominated Walter Carter, the former CORE president who was directing the Model City’s community-organizing efforts, to replace Mitchell. The nomination had tremendous support in low-income neighborhoods and among African Americans, and many liberal whites endorsed it as well. Conservative council members did not share the enthusiasm.70 Some were concerned that the mayor was conceding too much power to African Americans. As Councilmember William J. Meyers asserted, “[The mayor] has to look at two different sides, our side and the other, and it’s about time he started appointing some of our people to some of these jobs. I mean white people.”71 The council rejected the Carter nomination by a vote of ten to eight.72

Outraged by the decision, Carter’s supporters inundated the mayor and council members with protest letters. Twelve members of the CAC, most of them community residents, resigned in anger.73 Mitchell described the rejection as “part of the sequence of what I see happening in Baltimore, throughout the State and across the country. The backlash conservative group is determined there will be no further advances for the Black community.… The gauntlet has really been thrown now.”74 Brailey concurred. They “want a yes-man,” he protested.75 Mary Sollars, a prominent African American anti-poverty activist and member of the CAC, agreed as well. She described the vote as a deliberate effort to undermine the city’s War on Poverty.76 For his part, and not one to mince words, Carter compared the council members to those who joined white citizens’ councils in the South to defend Jim Crow after the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional.77

D’Alesandro, whose family had considerable power in the city’s Democratic Party, made repeated efforts to convince the council to reverse its decision—to no avail.78 The conservative members of the body had had enough of community organizing and demands from “militants,” and they retained the power to put on the brakes. Certainly the rejection of Carter for the top post at the CAA did not bring the War on Poverty in Baltimore to an end. Carter and the staff of the Model Cities program redoubled their community-organizing efforts, and that agency replaced the CAA as the heart of the city’s activist antipoverty efforts. Meanwhile, support for community participation remained firm in many municipal departments, and residents with low incomes were hardly willing to relinquish the influence they only recently had won. In addition, Baltimore was home to a growing population of white liberals who made their mark on city politics by supporting like-minded city council candidates and helping to elect D’Alesandro in 1967.79 Nevertheless, Mitchell was right; the gauntlet had indeed been thrown.

The goings-on in Baltimore—and particularly the actions of Agnew—did not escape the notice of Richard Nixon, who was running for president on the Republican ticket in 1968. Convinced that Agnew’s law-and-order rhetoric and willingness to talk tough to civil rights leaders would be attractive to many of the voters the candidate was already courting, Nixon invited the Maryland governor to join his campaign and run for vice president. Agnew’s ascension to national politics was a sign of trouble to come for Baltimore’s Black population. Civil rights leaders’ decades-long effort to open the municipal workforce to African Americans had paid dividends during the 1960s. President Johnson’s Great Society programs expanded the public sector, and African Americans, particularly Black women, secured many of the new jobs. Grants from the federal government earmarked for antipoverty efforts afforded Black municipal employees a degree of independence from the city’s predominantly white elected leaders and enabled them to pursue an anti-poverty agenda that differed considerably from the trickle-down commercial revitalization efforts usually championed by business leaders and city officials. Black leaders, activists, and city workers, meanwhile, seized the opportunities maximum-feasible community participation mandates opened and attempted to politicize city residents with low incomes. Their goal was to redistribute power and resources in the city. Although confined largely to antipoverty and human services agencies, African Americans nevertheless gained more influence over municipal affairs than they had ever had. They also worked hard to increase and improve service delivery, efforts that often eased the gendered caretaking responsibility of women, especially those with low incomes. Simultaneously, successful unionization campaigns enhanced the security of government employment, raised wages, and increased benefits. In a city hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs, unionized public-sector positions were a shelter in the storm. But many of the changes that African Americans recently had achieved were contingent on a stream of federal grants to cities to fight poverty. As a result, the stakes in the 1968 election were quite serious. Odds were not high that a Nixon-Agnew administration would continue the flow of federal aid to African American–controlled government agencies in Baltimore.

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