City sanitation workers hope to unionize 

Echoes from the Past

There is an interesting confluence — perhaps even a repetition — of history taking place in Charleston today, almost completely unnoticed by the media and the public.

Forty years after the epic hospital workers strike which was going on at this very moment in 1969, Mary Moultrie and William Saunders are trying to organize Charleston sanitation workers in a new struggle for dignity and equality. This is a 21st century struggle, but it is resonant with names and issues from the past.

In March 1969, some 400 mostly black female hospital workers at the municipal hospital and the Medical College of South Carolina (now MUSC) asked for a raise, up from the $1.30 they were making, and the recognition of their union, Local 1199B of the Hospital and Nursing Home Workers of the AFL-CIO. Their leader was Mary Moultrie.

When Moultrie and 11 other activists were fired, more than 400 workers went on strike. For the next 113 days, the confrontation in Charleston drew national headlines and national civil rights leaders such as Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and Coretta Scott King.

The strike also had the support of William Saunders, a Johns Island resident and lifelong human rights activist, who learned the work at the feet of legendary civil rights organizer Esau Jenkins. A Korean War veteran, Saunders returned home on a segregated bus to find Jim Crow laws still on the books in South Carolina. He went to work, earning the enmity of Charleston's white establishment.

The hospital strike ended with reinstatement of Moultrie and the other fired workers, a 30-cent per hour raise, and recognition of their union. But no contract was ever signed between the union and the hospital, and within a few years almost all the gains were lost as the Medical College reneged on most of its agreements. Mary Moultrie was harassed until she left her job and 1199B ceased to function.

Today she is back, with an office in the Chronicle Building on Upper King Street, working to get Local 1199C recognized by the city. As before, she is working with Saunders, CEO of the Charleston-based Committee on Better Racial Assurance.

The sanitation workers want a union like the one Charleston firefighters enjoy, Moultrie said. And as with firefighters, sanitation workers are more concerned with health and safety than with money. There have been several accidents lately that sanitation workers say the department could have prevented or handled better.

In one case, Moultrie said, a massive limb fell off a live oak onto the cab of a garbage collection truck, injuring the driver. According to Moultrie, the driver was held responsible for the accident. In another case, a can of paint was allegedly crushed in a truck compactor and exploded its contents in a worker's face. There have also reportedly been knee injuries and occasional needle stabs, she added. Both Moultrie and Saunders claim that the water coolers on the trucks are not kept clear of garbage and debris, so occasionally water quality is compromised.

No one from the sanitation department would comment on these charges.

"It doesn't have to be like that," Saunders said. "It's time that somebody looked into how the sanitation workers in this city are treated. They are important, and they should be treated like they are important. It's time somebody speaks for them."

For now it's a matter of winning public and political support for a union. Charleston Councilmen James Lewis and William Gregorie have spoken up for the sanitation workers. Several hundred people have signed a petition supporting a union and the public is invited to go online and add their names at petitiononline.com/loc1199b/petition.html. Charleston City Council will take up the issue later this month.

There is another aspect of this strike which is a reminder of the past. It was the sanitation workers of Memphis who Martin Luther King Jr. had gone to support when he was murdered on April 4, 1968. That strike, like the organizing effort in Charleston, reminds us that it is always the poorest, the least educated, and least respected members of society who are left to do society's dirtiest jobs. But while those jobs may be inherently grimy and arduous, they do not have to be dangerous and without dignity. These are the issues Charleston's sanitation workers are asking the city to address, but it won't be easy.

Even if the union is recognized, it will have no collective bargaining rights with the city under state law, according to a city spokesperson. It will have only "meet and confer" rights, but there is much these workers would like to confer about. The spokesperson said Mayor Joe Riley's door is always open to those who have a grievance. Let's hope so, because 130 sanitation workers may be calling soon.

See Will Moredock's blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.


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