Workers’ Struggle in Baltimore (2/2)
Lucky Crosby, Chief Shop Steward, AFSCME Local 467 and Labor Historian Bill Barry continue their discussion of the history and current state of Baltimore’s workers movement
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And we’re continuing our discussion on the commemoration of May Day about working-class politics in Baltimore.
Now joining us in the studio again, first of all, is Bill Barry. He’s a retired director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County and Dundalk. He was a union organizer for 20 years before that. His latest book is The 1877 Railroad Strike in Baltimore.
Also joining me in the studio is Lucky Crosby. He’s the chief shop steward of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, known as AFSCME, Local 467. His union represents the public housing maintenance workers. His father was a steelworker in the Steelworkers union for 16 years, and Lucky’s been an AFSCME member for 22 years.
Thank you both for joining me again.
BILL BARRY, LABOR HISTORIAN: Thank you for having us.
JAY: Let me start with you, Lucky. Baltimore today, as a result of a lot of deindustrialization, the loss of Bethlehem Steel and a lot of associated industry that went with it, most of the jobs now are public sector, and they’re mostly unionized. But it’s kind of a weird dynamic. What I mean by weird is you’re facing, in terms of politicians, a majority black city council, and you’re facing a Democratic Party, almost exclusively. Yeah. I mean, from my understanding, you can’t elect a Republican as a dog catcher in Baltimore. So it’s a Democratic Party city council. And that’s who you’re having a fight with, both in terms of wages, on questions of privatization. How does that complicate things, the fact that the unions are–you know, help finance the Democratic Party and then you have to fight with them?
LUCKY CROSBY, CHIEF SHOP STEWARD, AFSCME, LOCAL 467: Right. A think that’s a great question, and I think that’s the question that we as union members are still trying to grapple with, because say, for instance, the mayor of Baltimore City: the mayor appoint the cabinet–the commissioner of housing side is appointed, the executive director of the Housing Authority is appointed. But today we cannot get both of them in the same room to have a meeting to ask them who’s–who’s in charge of who and where did this program come from, to say that–to say you have a city council that we was called in front of the city council with Bill Henry, the chair of the housing side of the city. The meeting start. There’s three city council people there–Jack Young, Mary Pat Clarke, and Henry. Now, [you’re losing] 200 Democratic registered voters, and you don’t have the audacity to stay for the meeting. And I was so offended by that.
JAY: But how about your union? I mean, you have the ability, one would think–AFSCME is a big union in Baltimore. In theory, you should have tremendous electoral clout, money clout. I mean, I don’t see any clout being used here.
CROSBY: I happen to agree with you on that, about where is the clout. Again, when we’re dealing with a union, a Counsel 67, who have these vast resources and bullying power, we have not seen it at 647. We are in essence alone.
JAY: This is now–647 (for people that don’t remember), we said in the first part, is the local that Lucky’s part of that represents the maintenance workers at public housing. There’s a plan now to privatize 40 percent as a test, and it means probably, if the test succeeds, that eventually they would hope to get to 100 percent privatization, and that usually means get rid of the union jobs. It’s not official yet, but that’s usually what it means.
Bill, what do you make of the relationship between AFSCME, but also other unions in Baltimore, and the Democratic Party? And what has that meant for the struggle here?
BARRY: Well, I’m probably a biased person to answer that, because I am a registered Green Party member and have run for City Council as a Green exclusively on that issue, that they don’t represent working people. And all you have to do is look at the last session of the state legislature, the state assembly. I will be in my grave before the minimum wage goes up. And these are the people who need it most. Tipped workers are not getting anything out of this so-called raise. There was $1 billion to provide collective bargaining rights for community college faculty where I worked. That didn’t even come to a vote of the committee.
And these are strictly union issues. And I think the difficulty in the unions is that, as Lucky said, a few people make the decisions about who to support politically. It’s not put to a vote of the members. It’s never really a discussion. And so the same old same old kind of keeps going on–you scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back. And the results don’t pay off.
JAY: Like, in some states and some cities and at a national level, you could understand–whether you agree or don’t agree, you can understand union leaders’ logic that if we don’t support the Democratic Party, we’ll get the Republicans, and that they are so much worse that we have to hold our nose and make sure the Democrats–.
BARRY: That’s right.
JAY: But it’s not true in Baltimore. You can’t elect Republicans in Baltimore.
BARRY: But it’s also–that thinking has moved the country backward. We were talking today about laws that were passed in the ’70s. Richard Nixon/Spiro Agnew supported housing changes in Baltimore as Baltimore County executive. Richard Nixon signed the OSHA Act and the EPA, things like that. And so the whole political landscape has moved, with that gradual acceptance of the lesser of two evils, moved so far to the right that the issues are not are we going to make minimum wage $15 an hour for inflation or $22 for productivity, but are we going to raise it at all.
JAY: But there is no lesser-of-two-evil argument in Baltimore, ’cause there only is one party here.
CROSBY: The Democratic Party.
JAY: So what stops the unions from enforcing more power here? Why don’t they do it?
CROSBY: Again, I think you answered the question. You have a few making a decision based on whatever the criteria is for the masses of the union member. It’s not put to a vote.
JAY: Okay. But why are the union members so passive about it?
CROSBY: Because I think, again, because Baltimore is a Democratic city and there will be some risk retribution when you speak out against Democratic politician when you hold a union job.
BARRY: But I think it’s an unfortunate in general that there’s a very low level of union participation by the members. And in many unions, the 3 percent or 5 percent of the members is actually active. And historically there have been cases where locals have had to go from monthly membership meetings to quarterly meetings to some annual just to get a quorum. And as working people feel so disconnected, and they have all kinds of excuses about being busy and childcare and all kinds of other stuff–but you go back in history, when people were working 70 and 80 hours a week and they needed to organize a union, they found the time. It was a crusade. It was a cause for them. And the average member has to revive that spirit, and we have to go back and in time, you know, go back to the future, as I always say.
JAY: Well, how engaged are your members in your local?
CROSBY: Well, now of course our members are very engaged.
JAY: Because they might lose their jobs.
CROSBY: Because they might lose their jobs.
JAY: How were they before that?
CROSBY: Oh, well, we were seeing at a–we have a executive board meeting on the first Thursday, a general meeting on the second Thursday of the month. We were seeing anywhere from 15 to 31 members out of the 331 members.
But you have to understand the dynamic to what we do here. Overtime is basically what most of the members need to live on. Seventy percent of our members have part-time jobs, so they have two jobs. So whenever there is a meeting needed, Housing always give overtime on the Thursday of the meeting.
JAY: Oh, really?
CROSBY: Yes indeed.
JAY: [incompr.] where they offer overtime so people don’t go to the meeting.
CROSBY: Exactly, so they won’t come to the meeting. So this [incompr.] if we’re voting on–.
JAY: Well, you should hold more meetings, ’cause people could use the overtime.
CROSBY: Exactly. But you know how that is when their overtime has stopped, and we’re getting great numbers as far as the participating from the members.
But still, you need this–like Mr. Bill said, you need to come to your meetings to know what’s going on, because the union has been a great benefit to me, but when you have just a few faces of the union and everybody saying, well, we’re tired of seeing them, where are you members–. We was in a meeting with the executive branch of the Housing Authority, and they made this statement: we only see y’all three; y’all the union. And there’s 331 of us. That was upsetting.
JAY: And why do you think you got engaged personally? Why did you get so involved?
CROSBY: I got engaged because I saw the injustice, that sometimes supervisors are little heavy-handed, managers are little heavy-handed. And I always was the type to stand up. They gave me, like, the master agreement when I was hired, just like in our master agreement you must get 30 minutes to meet with the new employees–Housing never notified us of this.
So, again, I was engaged because I wanted to see the union be a powerful entity in the community and the political process as far as you vote for me, you vote the way I vote. You don’t vote for yourself. You vote for me because I’m voting for you. But I think the union has lost perspective on that, because there’s a few picking the politicians, and the politicians do what they want to do once they get in office.
And as you can see, we’re in a Democratic city, and you follow the history–look at all the privatization of all the city jobs under Democratic leadership. This mayor, Mme. Stephanie Rollins, is not the first Democratic mayor to start this privatization shift. It started really under Mr. O’Malley, who now is the governor. And no one seemed to connect the dots on this. No one seemed to connect the dots. And we still do the same old circle–cycle: when you ask them a question, they are taught not to answer the question; you can’t get a meeting with the mayor; and [we’re pulled by the] union.
JAY: Right. So how does this sort of change?
BARRY: Well, I think–let me just follow up on that one question. I think that in general in this country the expression public ownership has been brought into such disrepute–and you even look particularly at the prison systems. It used to be a public agency. Now they’re privatized. And if there is ever an industry with a motive to arrest more people and lock them up longer, it is the private prison industry, ’cause they make money off it.
And so public housing, public transportation, public schools–the word public is a dirty word. And these corporations will not be happy until they reverse everything that was done in the 1930s. And we saw the battle between the Tennessee Valley Authority and private power, and it was–the world that was going to come to an end if we allowed public agencies to run utilities.
And so I think that it’s a large issue which ends up in the lap of every employee of the Baltimore City Housing Authority, and it suddenly is a panic because they’re about to lose their jobs, and it’s part of a big process and a big universe and its complicated. But people have to start waking up. And, unfortunately, they don’t wake up until they’ve been pushed off the building, and then it’s too late. And then it’s like, oh, what did I do wrong? And so you go around and you try and sound the alarms to union people who are working. And Sparrow’s Point, for example, the decline was over 25-year period.
JAY: This is the decline of Bethlehem Steel.
BARRY: Exactly. And you talk to people, and they say, yeah, we noticed that they weren’t investing and foreign steel came in and the owners’ executive salaries were too high, but I’m doing okay, so I’m not going to worry about it. And I think that that is a fatal attitude to have. I think a lot of young people are not taught about unions or, or if they are, they’re taught negative things. Often they’ll find themselves working in a nonunion atmosphere, and it’s as cruel today as I’ve ever seen. I speak as a parent of kids. I have two boys working in nonunion occupations, in retail, and the retail and hospitality is the largest industry now in Baltimore City, and it’s almost exclusively nonunion. And there’s no reason that you couldn’t do as well at the hotel as you did at Bethlehem Steel. They are wealthy hotel owners. Dave Cordish, you know, he’s got all his money in the Cayman Islands, but the whole Inner Harbor could easily afford the kind of wages that people used to make at Bethlehem Steel and at General Motors.
JAY: But instead it’s minimum wage. How engaged are your members now?
CROSBY: I think our members are 95 percent engaged, because they understand that now, as more information’s being brought out by, like, Real News, they understand that this is their livelihood, this is there. Now they’re now owning it, because we always thought at Housing we didn’t have layoffs because we receive 100 percent federal funding, so we don’t have layoffs, which in the contract state that we supposed to be notified the master agreement between us and the Housing, which we was not, and today we have not. We have not received written documentation about their plan because they have no plan. This is a fly-by-night just to snatch the money while they can.
JAY: ORight. Okay. We’re going to do a lot more on Baltimore working-class politics, and we’re also going to do a lot more particularly about the public housing issue. But for now, thanks very much for joining us.
BARRY: Thank you for having us, Paul.
JAY: Thank you, lucky.
CROSBY: Thank you, sir.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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