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Lucky Crosby, Chief Shop Steward, AFSCME Local 467 and Labor Historian Bill Barry discuss the history and current state of Baltimore’s workers movement

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

May 1 has become the day of international working class solidarity. It celebrates efforts and protest for the eight-hour working day that took place in 1886 in Chicago, where for workers were killed in the midst of those protests. It’s become a day right across the world which is the principal day that workers celebrate their fight for their rights. In the United States and Canada, another day was created, called Labor Day, which was supposed to be not quite so red, because the day of international working class solidarity, May 1, has always traditionally been associated with a fight for socialism, not just a question of a fight for rights and wages.

In Baltimore, there’s a rich history of working-class struggle. And because we’re in Baltimore, we’re going to focus on the struggle that’s taken place over the years here.

And joining us now in the studio to talk about May 1 and the working-class movement in Baltimore, first of all, is Lucky Crosby. He’s the chief shop steward of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, known as AFSCME. He’s in Local 467, which is the public housing workers, maintenance workers. And he’s been in AFSCME me for 22 years. And before that, his father was in the Steelworkers union for 16 years.

Also joining us in the studio is Bill Barry. He’s a retired director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County in Dundalk, was a union organizer for 20 years before that. He’s written three books on unionism and will have a new book running–appropriately, on May 1–called The 1877 Railroad Strike in Baltimore, which grew from a historical marker erected last year at Camden yards. And he’s also been a candidate for the Great Party in Baltimore.

Thanks for joining us, both of you.

BILL BARRY, LABOR HISTORIAN: Thank you, Paul, for having us.

JAY: So I’m going to start with Bill. There’s so much history we could cover, and if we try to do this in any chronological way right now, we would do about 15 or 20 parts. And I think we will sometime soon. But let’s for now have a kind of more general conversation, in which we can dip into the history. So let me just start with how many workers approximately do you think are unionized in Baltimore, and why aren’t more workers unionized in Baltimore.

BARRY: Let me do the back half first, why workers aren’t. For as long as there have been unions–and I go back to the workers on the Pyramids in Egypt in 3000 BC–employers have fought it, and they fought it private sector and public sector. And it goes back and forth. And there were high periods of time in the 1870s and 1880s, and in the 1930s and in the 1970s, but that antiunion pressure has always been there. And over the last 40 years, 50 years, it has really become much stronger, and so that we are now, as a percentage of the workforce nationwide in this country, back where we were in 1910. So we’ve been pushed back.

JAY: Which is something like, what, about 6 percent of the private sector.

BARRY: Yeah, and the public sector is substantially higher. But the attacks on unionism have gone from the private sector to the public sector. And we’ve seen governors–Scott Walker and people like that–do it. Lucky’s situation is the same thing. They’re talking about privatizing the Housing Authority. And so if you can’t break the union, you just eliminate the job.

JAY: Right. So in terms of a little bit of history, you have a new book coming out about the railroad strike. And Baltimore was a real center of working-class militancy.

BARRY: It was. And Baltimore had epic moments. It had an earlier period of time–we were talking about it, about the black union movement. Isaac Myers came out of the Civil War. Many of unions after the Civil War wouldn’t accept blacks, so he created a black trade union movement, a co-op shipyard at Fell’s Point. And to the credit of the city or whoever runs it, there is a Douglas Myers Museum at Fell’s point which gives his history. He’s one of the most neglected guys in Baltimore history. It was–.

JAY: Talk a bit about the railroad strike.

BARRY: Well, the railroad strike was huge, and it started in July 1877. B&O had gone through one round of wage cuts in late 1876. They blamed it on the recession of 1873. But they never missed a stockholder dividend, and they actually made more money during the strike than they thought that they ever would. They went, and in the board of governors meeting, John Work Garrett decided, well, we’re going to do another 10 percent wage cut, and it’s going to be effective July 16. A bunch of guys went to Camden Yards and said, no, we’re not going to do it. So they paid them off. They struck. They stopped the train halfway out into Howard County, an area called Relay, and blocked engines coming from roundhouses in Riverside neighborhood. And it spread. It involved hundreds of thousands of workers all across the country. We ended up having the militia come out. After the third day, the militia was not considered to be trustworthy, because they were fraternizing with the strikers in a lot of cities.

JAY: Cause a lot of cities–’cause this strike spread across the country.

BARRY: Absolutely. And there were two other strikes. There was a canning strike and a attackers strike here in Baltimore at the same time.

JAY: I mean, this is in the midst of a fairly serious recession.

BARRY: Absolutely. And so there were a lot of unemployed workers, homeless–they called them tramps. And many of them came and supported the strikers. The companies thought that they could easily higher laid off railroad workers or older ones, and it became a huge–.

JAY: Thought they could be scabs and they wouldn’t.

BARRY: Controversial area, right. And so the governor of West Virginia first called the militia, and that failed. He then called Rutherford B. Hayes. And Hayes had just come in as president of the United States, a hotly contested election, if you remember your American history, of 1876. Hayes’s campaign platform was: I’m never going to have federal troops in a state. And so what the governor of West Virginia did and then eventually Governor Carroll of Maryland did was say, we can’t trust the militia, and the militia murdered ten people several blocks from where we’re sitting today.

JAY: Yeah, right at–just on the street right outside the building.

BARRY: Right by Baltimore City Hall. And they were marching from an armory near where the main post office is now and encountered a big group of protesters and people coming home from shopping. It was five, early evening on a Friday night. And they shot ten people, none of whom was involved in the strike, including a 14-year-old newsboy. One man was looking for his brother and had turned around and got shot in the back. I mean, it was a horrible situation.

And over the next couple of days, most of the militia–and they were marching from the armories to Camden Yards to be sent to Cumberland. vMost of then disappeared. They had friends bring them in a change of clothing so as they could get out of their military uniforms, and they just disappeared, so that John Garrett and the governor of Maryland said, we need to have federal troops. So they had some at Fort McHenry under the command of William Barry. So I always tell people, there are two famous William Barrys in history, that one one me.

JAY: Lucky, there’s this history of militancy in Baltimore. There was the railroad strike in the 19th century and there’s various other times where the working-class movement in Baltimore has been very militant. You don’t see that militancy now. What happened?

LUCKY CROSBY, CHIEF SHOP STEWARD, AFSCME, LOCAL 467: I think what we have in Baltimore: we have a system that is broken as far as the participation of everyone, because unions benefit everyone. With the stability of being in–growing up in a union home, I understand that. But in Baltimore, I think the fragment is because it’s so–it’s so fragmented because there are so many different leaders. And there’s a saying–and there’s a sayings in Baltimore about somebody want to be a leader, everybody want to be a leader, now you have nobody leading, because for the private sector to be able to come in and dismantle unions, established unions, it had to be under, my belief, the /ˈɑːsəməsi/ of politicians. When you put politicians into the union and union into politicians, then you have the problem.

JAY: So give some examples, ’cause you were saying before some of the things that used to be unionized public sector jobs are now privatized nonunion jobs.

CROSBY: Right. I remember back in, like, the early 2000s, the custodial workers, the custodian workers was–like, the people at clean the schools and the recreation centers–they were privatized. And then now you have this run to everything want to be privatized, because they don’t want to pay the benefits, they don’t want to pay a fair wage. So in Baltimore, if you check out the history on working-class people and you look at the decline of working-class people, where there was unions, there was stability, when, in my opinion, where there was private sector and contractual or privatizing of the work, there was less stability.

JAY: When they were nonunion. Some of the private sector was also unionized.

CROSBY: Right. Some of them were then–even if you look at the state, the state use to have, like, the child support agency. It was a state agency. They dismantled that and they privatized it, and all the state people with tenure were bought out.

JAY: So one of the questions I have, Bill, is I understand when a private company, a manufacturing company, in the ’80s and ’90s and such, they were selling their workers. If you don’t take concessions or if you’re not unionized and you get unionized, we’re moving. Were going to go to Mexico, we’re going to go to Asia. I understand the pressure that put on workers. But public-sector workers are service-based. You’re not going to send these public-sector jobs to Mexico. But at the same–but there wasn’t this level of kind of militant opposition to the privatization and the breaking of the unions.

BARRY: Well, I think that it–you know, it’s like, and then they came for me. Often if it wasn’t my job, I didn’t worry. And I think that’s one of the problems with unions today is that the dictionaries that most union officers have is from the 20th century. And so when they look up the word solidarity, the word is defined as when I need help, everybody come help me, rather than what it should be, which is an injury to one is an injury to all. I was noticing that in the last month, where I’d been on different picket lines, and as a retiree I get the chance to go up for the hospital workers over at Hopkins, with some of the hotel workers down in Annapolis.

JAY: And at Hopkins they were just on strike, and they still haven’t got a new contract.

BARRY: Right. And with the postal workers last week, they’re challenging Staples. But almost no people from other unions were there. And we need to reach out when our brothers and sisters are in trouble and help them, because then when we’re in trouble, they’ll come help us.

JAY: Yeah. You’re in a situation right now, Lucky, like that. Your local at public housing, they’re talking about privatizing–what is it?–40 percent of the public housing, and usually that means get rid of the union jobs. I don’t think they’ve made it clear yet, but everyone’s expecting that. You know, one would think at least your own union should be rallying all around to try to oppose this. And, in fact, why wouldn’t that be a thing citywide, that unions would get together to protect publicly owned houses and union jobs? But so far you guys are kind of on your own here.

CROSBY: Exactly. And I guess that’s–.

JAY: I shouldn’t say on your own, because you’re getting support from the community.

CROSBY: Community and the tenants.

JAY: But I don’t know how much you’re getting from other unions.

CROSBY: I’m going to try to put it like this. We’re local. The council is the umbrella for the locals. They are locals under the umbrella. Right now, the umbrella have a hole in it and water’s coming through. So to put it like that, we invite everyone to join with us, because if you look at housing, housing is everyone problem. When you try look at what they’re trying to do to Local 647 with the privatization of the job, if you follow the money, you understand this is just a stepping stone for them. And to answer your question, we have reach-outs to everybody that will listen to us–politician, other union officials. And thus far we haven’t had the support that we would like.

BARRY: Let me ask a question, though. What other unions have your members helped?

CROSBY: Well, I’m glad you asked that. Well, under Council 67, the hotel workers, the teachers, every time there’s bodies needed, Local 647 have got on buses to go to Annapolis maybe 20 times since I’ve been there. We have /dɔːn/ several picket lines with other unions, with our shirts on, under the umbrella, that we would think that when we need help, we could get help.

JAY: Well, a lot of this has to do with broad question of what’s happened to the unions over the decades. I mean, it used to be that union leaders weren’t paid all that much more than workers. For a long time, in the early days, they used to have to stand at the gate and collect their dues. It wasn’t an automatic check off–off the check. And it seems to a large extent that especially the unions that were in the wealthy sectors–and it used to be, like here in Baltimore, steel at Bethlehem Steel, it used to be the autoworkers. But they were the most powerful unions in these very privileged sectors. And I guess it’s kind of what you were saying. You know, I’m all right, Jack.

BARRY: That’s exactly right. And I think the standard of living for union members–and I think it was also a generational issue, that as younger workers come into a union setting, they don’t appreciate what it took to get them what they have. And we often talk about new members exercises. So you sit down a young new hire and say, look, you think that you have this insurance and this wage and this benefit because God gave it to you, and it didn’t; here’s how we got it: in the generation from you, they were on strike, they struggled, they did these other issues; because I think people feel stuff is and should be handed to them, and I think as a parent you sometimes have that same problem with your kids. You know, you want them to appreciate how hard sometimes things are.

JAY: I run it people here sometime–and not only in Baltimore–people in low-wage jobs, you know, making $9, $10 an hour, or even $8 an hour, and they almost seem to resent unionized workers getting more. I mean, when you see what the Hopkins workers are making–and, you know, many of the Hopkins workers are on food stamps. We had people–we had on our stories people that have been interviewed who were working there 14, 15 years, are still making $13. I know in your local you have guys that have been working for years at public housing, and they actually qualify for the subsidized housing ’cause their wages are so lousy.

CROSBY: Exactly. And we also have members that live in public housing–

JAY: That’s what I’m saying. Yeah.

CROSBY: –because of the wages. And we understood that going in, because of the longevity of the job. But now with this there’s no longevity. So I think the cat got out of the bag when people actually seen our wages, that we won these high-paid $35 an hour workers like people perceived. But if you look at our executive branch at housing under the executive director Mr. Graziano, he made well above six figures, and he received two checks, one from the city side and one from the housing side, ’cause the executive branch, none of them make under six figures. None of them are Maryland residents nor Baltimore city residents. So the reason this is brought up: because when you look at resentment, nobody seem to resent them, but they have did a good trick on turning the tenants against us and making it seem like we are well-paid, which we are not, actually.

JAY: And how do you understand or why do you think–not so much the tenants–I’m talking about lower-paid workers, although maybe some of them are tenants too. But instead of saying, yeah, I want a union job and we’ll fight for it, it’s, oh, I resent you guys, and why are you even on strike anyway when you’re getting such a cushy–’cause you’re in the union.

CROSBY: I think that the nonunion person–.

JAY: Where does it come from, though, this idea?

CROSBY: –because I think the nonunion person see the fat cats, the leaders of the union, living high on the hog, and they feel as though why would I join there and pay my dues to this person making a half a million dollars when I’m making $10 an hour and this person doesn’t care. That’s why I try to make the coalition between the politician and now the union. They are hand-in-hand. And I think that’s a bad mix.

JAY: But how do you understand that, then, that people don’t resent politicians who make that much money, they don’t resent private employers that are making in the billions, the people that own some of these enterprises, but they do seem to resent union workers making, you know, better wages than they are, but in most cases not that much more?

CROSBY: Again, I think the plan had been set for the nonunion, low-paid workers to resent the union non-paid worker, because there’s no information. Like, I think the union have to do a better job of reaching out, organizing, and bringing a nonunion worker into a union, and then let them fight for the right of what they think are decent and affordable wage.

But still, when you have this entity saying, don’t join them because they’re taking a portion of your money and they’re just going to the fat cats at the union executive board–I happen to sit on the executive board for 647. There have been times when I have to use my money to go places. So we are not receiving just compensation. Then you bring that up: who’s qualifying the wages? We should have a labor commissioner that qualify or set the wages.

The thing in Baltimore with Housing Authority, the labor commissioner have no authority over the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. That’s run by the human resource personnel, who work for the executive director of Housing Authority.

JAY: I just want to pursue this question a little more.

BARRY: Let me just answer one thing. Last week we had a debate at the community college. The community college faculty across the state, actually, are having an organizing campaign. And so they had a debate at the college about unionism. And I was asked to be on the panel. And there were two faculty members who were against the union and another woman from AFSCME who was for it. But the issue I made after that statement was how many good questions we got from the students who don’t know anything about the unions. And I said to people afterward that we need to go out to the high schools, to the community colleges, to the communities and say, this is why we got what we got. You certainly see it in areas like Chicago, where the teachers spent several years talking to the parents and explaining to them how demand for better schools for the kids is tied to better conditions for the teachers. And so when there was a showdown, the parents and communities supported the teachers rather than hating them–exactly what you said, Paul, this dynamic of where people envy and resent union people instead of saying, there’s where I want to be.

JAY: Well, the unions–I’m not talking–there are some exceptions to this, but on the whole, the big unions all seem to want to put millions and millions of dollars into electing the Democratic Party, but they don’t seem to want to put anywhere near the same kind of money into fighting this battle for the sake of, if you want, the heart of workers.

Anyway, we’re going to pick this conversation up in part two of this discussion. So please join us on The Real News Network, where we will continue talking about May Day and working-class politics in Baltimore and in the country.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Bill Barry is retired director of labor studies at The Community College of Baltimore County in Dundalk, and was a union organizer for 20 years before that. He has written three books on unionism: I Just Got Elected, Now What: The New Union Officer's Handbook ; Union Strategies for Hard Times ; From First Contact to First Contract: An Organizer's Handbook and will have a new book running--appropriately on May 1--off the press, The 1877 Railroad Strike in Baltimore , which grew from the historical marker erected last year at Camden Yards. Bill has also been a 3-time candidate for Baltimore City Council as Green Party member in northeast Baltimore.

Lucky Crosby is the chief shop steward of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 467.