History has long been portrayed as a series of “great men” taking great action to shape the world we live in. In recent decades, however, social historians have focused more on looking at history “from the bottom up,” studying the vital role that working people played in our heritage. Working people built, and continue to build, the United States. In our new series, Pathway to Progress, we’ll take a look at various people, places and events where working people played a key role in the progress our country has made, including those who are making history right now. Today’s topic is the Charleston hospital strike.
In the late 1960s, Charleston, South Carolina, was NOT primed to be the next city to be a touchstone in either the civil rights movement or the labor movement. Much of the progress and activism seen elsewhere had passed Charleston by. And the White power structure was as equally entrenched against labor unionism as it was against the expansion of Black people’s rights. But the hospital strike of 1969 became as important to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) Poor People’s Campaign and the labor movement as the Montgomery bus boycott would be to the civil rights movement.
After dock workers were rejected in their bid for a union contract, everyone assumed Black hospital workers had absolutely no chance or successfully organizing. Workers at two hospitals, though, had other plans. One of the hospitals was run by the state and the other by the county. Management had reportedly engaged in racially biased behavior, notably preventing Black doctors from working at the hospital for many years.
Local 1199, then associated with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, had experience with organizing in hostile territory. After it organized 34,000 new members in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, it formed a national organizing committee for hospital workers. The local also reached out to the SCLC, one of the most important civil rights organizations, to coordinate on organizing efforts. Nearly 3 million hospital and nursing home employees throughout the country were without union representation, most were Black or Latinx and most were desperately poor. The SCLC launched the Poor People’s Campaign specifically to help out in such situations and so it joined with Local 1199 in forming the National Organizing Committee of Hospital and Nursing Home Employees. Coretta Scott King was named honorary chair and Ralph Abernathy and other SCLC leaders were members of the committee.
The SCLC and Local 1199 trained staff in union organizing methods that were successful in places like Memphis, Tennessee, Atlanta and St. Petersburg. The hospital workers in Charleston weren’t idle, either, as they began organizing meetings with help from the local Black community. Management was led by Dr. William McCord, president of the medical college, which ran the state hospital. After delaying meeting with organizers, McCord fired 12 of them. The reaction was immediate, when 400 workers, including nurses, nurse’s aides, kitchen helpers, laundry workers and orderlies, walked off the job. A week later, workers at the county-run hospital walked out in sympathy. The workers’ demands were clear, rehire the 12 fired workers, recognize the union, increase wages and institute grievance procedures.
McCord was contemptuous. He offered to give Black workers an additional holiday for the birthday of Robert E. Lee. McCord secured an injunction from a segregationist judge that effectively eliminated legal protests. The Black workers rejected the injunction’s validity and began picketing the hospital. Arrests immediately followed. Even worse, vigilantes began assaulting strikers, who had to establish security guards at the picket and around their union hall.
By now, SCLC and Local 1199 staff were on the ground to provide leadership and assistance. Abernathy and other prominent leaders like Andrew Young set up camp in Charleston and sought to bring national attention to the plight of the Black hospital workers. They quickly tied the hospital strike to the larger civil rights movement and connected the strike directly to Martin Luther King Jr., who had been slain in Memphis the previous year while supporting striking sanitation workers. Coretta Scott King said: “If my husband were alive today, he would be in Charleston, South Carolina.”
Charleston faced mass meetings, daily marches, evening rallies and boycotts of stores and schools that didn’t support the strike. The response included daily confrontations with police and local White citizens, and arrests were daily. The governor came out against the strike and sent state troopers and National Guardsman. Arrests were stepped up.
But the strikers didn’t back down and they weren’t intimidated. They showed up, day-after-day, regardless of what was thrown at them, which, by that point, included bayonets, tanks and National Guardsmen patrolling the city’s streets. Coretta Scott King spoke at two local churches and nearly 30% of the city’s Black population showed up. She not only championed the cause of the hospital workers, she appealed for financial assistance, as the union and SCLC were running out of money to sustain the strike.
King’s request went national. The leaders of civil rights organizations and Black elected officials came together for the first time since Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. The appeal worked. With the help of national ads and television coverage, money began flowing in. Walter Reuther personally joined the demonstrations and donated $10,000. George Meaney and the national AFL-CIO gave another $25,000. Other unions, including White unions, joined the hospital workers on the picket lines. Abernathy was jailed, as were leaders of 1199B, the new designation for the local started by the Charleston hospital workers.
The opposition to the strike started to fracture. Boycotts brought business activity to a standstill in the city. The business community began to fear a economic disaster and they called for a settlement. Others feared that a victory for Black hospital workers would lead to further organizing by civil rights organizations and labor unions in the city. In particular, they were afraid that union organizing would move into the textile industry, which was strong in the state. Further complicating the situation were federal contracts, with $12 million worth on the verge of being canceled if the hospital continued to discriminate against Black workers.
In this environment, the hospital administration agreed to rehire the strikers, including the original 12 fired workers. State government agreed to raise the minimum wage as well, potentially giving strikers several of their demands. With the agreement set to be finalized, Sen. Strom Thurmond stepped in and said that the federal aid would be delivered, regardless of the hospital’s actions. The hospital withdrew from the settlement and Local 1199 and the SCLC accused President Richard Nixon of “giving Senator Thurmond his political payoff for services rendered in the last election. A payoff whose real price is the suffering of Black hospital workers.”
Demonstrations started up again and they expanded to the textile companies and government buildings in the state and in Washington, D.C. More unions joined the protests and mass arrests continued. Attempts to solve the problem from the nation’s capitol were stalled by the Nixon administration until Secretary of Labor George Schultz took action. He sent a mediator to South Carolina and demanded that the strike be settled.
After 100 days, the strike was settled in favor of the Black hospital workers. They won wage increases of 30-70 cents an hour, the establishment of a credit union, a grievance procedure that allowed the union to represent employees and all fired and striking workers were reinstated. They didn’t win union recognition, but the wins they achieved addressed most of the problems the union would’ve taken on anyway.
At a victory rally at Zion Olivet Church, the Rev. Andrew Young summarized why the strike was successful: “We won this strike because of a wonderful marriage—the marriage of the SCLC and Local 1199. The first of many beautiful children of this marriage is Local 1199B here in Charleston, and there are going to be as many more children like 1199B as there are letters in the alphabet.”
The combined efforts didn’t stop in Charleston. The tactics used in South Carolina were quickly exported elsewhere. Within months, they had also secured collective bargaining rights for 1,500 mostly Black workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Within a year, the Baltimore local had added 6,000 more hospital and nursing home workers. In December, the National Union of Hospital and Nursing Home Employees was established with Coretta Scott King as honorary chairperson. While reflecting upon the success in Charleston, King said that right before his death, her husband had concluded that “the key to battling poverty is winning jobs for workers with decent pay through unionism.” Charleston was one of the first moments that proved King right.
Source: “Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1981” by Philip S. Foner, 1974.
This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on February 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.