History: Charleston hospital workers’ strike

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Coretta Scott King (center) with strikers, Charleston, South Carolina, 1969, courtesy of the Avery Research Center. Left to right: Julia Davis, Mary Moultrie, Coretta Scott King, Rosetta Simmons, Juanita Abernathy, and Doris Turner. Photo from 1969 via the Avery Research Center at the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.

Coretta Scott King (center) with strikers, Charleston, South Carolina, 1969, courtesy of the Avery Research Center. Left to right: Julia Davis, Mary Moultrie, Coretta Scott King, Rosetta Simmons, Juanita Abernathy, and Doris Turner. Photo from 1969 via the Avery Research Center at the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.

In Charleston in 1969, issues of race, class, and gender coalesced in a strike of more than 400 African American hospital workers, mostly female, against the all-white administrations of the Medical College Hospital (MCH) and Charleston County Hospital (CCH). The strike against MCH lasted 100 days during spring and summer; the one at CCH went on for an additional three weeks. What had begun as a dispute between employers and employees quickly transformed into a national and international debate over civil rights, unionization of public sector workers, and gender roles.

Long-term factors regarding the crisis included white Charleston’s tradition of paternalistic, hegemonic race relations as well as their long-standing opposition to unions. Short-term factors included black nurses’ aides being paid less than whites for the same work; being paid (along with licensed practical nurses, orderlies, kitchen and laundry staff, and other “nonprofessional” workers) $1.30 an hour, 30¢ below the minimum wage; and the lack of respect shown by many white hospital workers to their black colleagues, often demonstrated by racist comments in their presence or directed at them. Other aspects of institutional racism at MCH included the lack of black students at the nursing school and the lack of black physicians on staff.

15.0119.strikemarkerThe catalyst for black hospital workers to organize occurred in February 1967. When a white head nurse would not give five “nonprofessional” black workers the customary access to patients’ charts, they refused to work-and were fired the next day. The five asked Mary Moultrie, a black nurse’s aide, to help them. She talked with Bill Saunders, a factory worker, activist and community liaison with the local office of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), and Isaiah Bennett, a veteran union organizer.

Small groups of workers began meeting weekly at local churches without publicity in fear of reprisals, while HEW investigated the firings. The workers were reinstated, but the meetings continued and attendance slowly increased to several hundred. CCH workers, led by Rosetta Simmons, joined the meetings. During these discussions, workers found that they faced the same discriminatory attitudes and practices throughout the hospital. Faced with an unresponsive administration, workers concluded that they needed a national union to represent them. Bennett suggested Local 1199 of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Workers, which had already organized hospital workers in New York City. When Moultrie and others requested help in September 1968, the union responded, showing interest in organizing southern workers. Soon Local 1199B was chartered in Charleston and Mary Moultrie was elected president.

In February 1969, Local 1199B officially requested formal recognition from MCH. On March 18, MCH president William McCord met with Moultrie and a delegation of workers. But McCord brought an anti-union delegation outnumbering Moultrie’s group. Convinced that negotiations in good faith were not possible, Moultrie and her colleagues walked out of the meeting. Other workers joined Moultrie’s group, and they briefly took over the president’s office in protest. After the workers returned to their jobs, 12 of them were fired. That night, Local 1199B voted to go on strike at MCH, demanding recognition of the union, a meaningful grievance procedure, a 30¢ increase in MCH’s minimum hourly wage to the federal standard of $1.60-and the rehiring of the fired strikers.

On March 20, the strike began and picket lines formed at MCH, quickly followed by an injunction severely limiting picketing. McCord stated that he would not “turn a 25 million dollar complex over to a bunch of people who don’t have a grammar school education.” McCord and Gov. Robert McNair declared that the state’s right-to-work law precluded union recognition of MCH workers. On March 29, CCH workers also went on strike. As arrests for violation of the injunction increased, Dr. Ralph David Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) arrived in Charleston on March 31 and spoke to 1,500 strikers and their supporters.

SCLC, still recovering from the assassination of its first leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis a year earlier, saw the Charleston strike as a way to work with Local 1199B in a “Union Power, Soul Power” alliance that could give SCLC a badly needed victory. Abernathy also saw involvement as a way of demonstrating his leadership ability as King’s successor. The presence of SCLC helped overcome divisions among local black leaders and rallied much of Charleston’s black community in support of the strike.

On April 25 Abernathy and 101 demonstrators were arrested and Governor McNair ordered 500 National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets to patrol city streets. Three nights later Coretta Scott King told more than 3,000 supporters that her late husband would have been there if he were alive. The next day she led a mass march in the hospital area. On May 1, McNair ordered a curfew in Charleston from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. and declared a state of emergency in the city when incidents of rock-throwing and fire-bombing increased as the strike dragged on and frustrations grew. The New York Times had already termed the strike “the country’s tensest civil rights struggle.” On May 2, Abernathy was released from jail on bond, partly to try to defuse the situation.

The continuation of the strike hurt Charleston’s economy and reputation. Supporters honored SCLC’s call for a boycott of city businesses. In addition, tourists tended to avoid a city with racial strife and a curfew. Convention business shriveled up. Observers estimated that the strike ultimately cost Charleston more than $15 million in lost revenue. Economic pressures intensified political pressure to settle the strike.


Abernathy speaking in Charleston, 1969.

On Mother’s Day, May 11, more than 5,000 marchers heard Abernathy, Moultrie, Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, and five congressmen denounce the intransigence of white state officials in strike negotiations. On June 2, the curfew ended, but the arrest of Abernathy on June 20 led to a near-riot and the curfew was reinstated. Leaders of the predominately black International Longshoremen Association speculated about closing the port of Charleston to increase pressure for a fair settlement.

Meanwhile, negotiations between Bill Saunders, representing the strikers, and MCH vice president William Huff led to an agreement. The 12 fired workers would be rehired, pay would be raised to the federal level, and a formal grievance procedure and a credit union would be established; but no union recognition or official collective bargaining would be permitted. The workers accepted the compromise, but McCord balked, backed by U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond and Congressman L. Mendel Rivers. However, when an HEW investigation charged MCH with 37 violations of civil rights statutes and threatened to cut off $12 million in federal funds, McCord finally yielded. MCH strikers claimed victory, and CCH workers soon settled their strike on similar terms.

The strike’s results were significant at the time. Female MCH and CCH workers believed that their actions had led to “a new relationship of mutual respect and dignity” on the job and to improved race relations in the community. In 1970, Charleston elected its first black state legislator since Reconstruction as well as several black city council members. But Local 1199B in Charleston folded after a year, undercut by its lack of official standing. Twenty-five years after the strike, Mary Moultrie lamented that “a lot of things change, and then you see them gradually regressing.” In 1996, the Department of Labor cited the Medical University of South Carolina for four violations of discrimination laws and 14 other related employment practices.

This excerpt from The South Carolina Encyclopedia, published by USC Press, was written by George Hopkins and is republished by permission.

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