Editor’ note:  This article by longtime DC DSA activist Suzanne Crowell – now a resident of Maine – from the Labor Day 1986 issue of the Washington Socialist (in its tabloid newsprint incarnation) provides a snapshot of the struggles within the DC labor movement three decades ago.  Then, as in years to come, local labor fought centrifugal tendencies as it sought to protect workers and increase its clout in electoral politics. The elevation of Jos Williams to the presidency of the Metro Washington Council AFL-CIO heralded the emergence of African American leadership in a previously white-led local labor movement.   Over his 33-year tenure as president, Williams was a friend of DSA and local progressive movements. 

  • Bill Mosley


DC Labor’s Struggle: solidarity still seems a remote dream

By Suzanne Crowell

Washington has a rich history of empowerment for working people that, like most labor history, has been largely forgotten. Its story has many facets – the fight against segregation, against employers, and in the political arena. The current labor movement, however, is best understood through a focus on recent organizational history and the current cast of characters, most of whom entered the scene in the early 1970s.

It’s a story, in part, of independent power centers evolving through the coalescing of smaller labor groups into larger ones.

The AFL-CIO central body president in the early ‘70s was George Apperson, an official of transit workers local 689, which then represented D.C. bus drivers. Increasing dissatisfaction with Apperson’s conservatism and perceived ineffectiveness prompted a revolt of “young turks” in 1975. Centered in the hotel workers, AFSCME and Columbia Typographical Union local 101 (which lays claim to being the nation’s oldest local union), the coalition put up a slate against the old guard, with 101’s Robert Peterson tapped for president. Apperson’s strength was in the retail clerks, OPEIU, and some CWA locals. By the time the election came, however, and the new slate looked victorious, many locals abandoned Apperson, including his own.

Peterson largely succeeded in uniting the labor council for two years. It was not until his second term that the splits which persist to this day emerged. When Peterson ran in 1979 for a newly-lengthened term of three years, Ron Richardson of the hotel workers tested the waters to oppose him, but backed out of actually running when he failed to garner enough support. It was in Peterson’s second term that Jos[lyn] Williams, director of AFSCME’s small council of federal workers and a former employee of the Library of Congress, became the council president’s full-time assistant (the president’s job was not a paid position until 1982).

During this same period, the merger of the retail clerks and the amalgamated meatcutters created a new international union – the United Food and Commercial Workers union, the largest in the AFL-CIO at that time. The merger made the Washington area’s UFCW local the largest south of the Mason-Dixon line, with some 30,000 members. Local 400 clearly wanted to play a role in local unionism that it believed commensurate with its newfound strength. Its president, William McNutt, came to power as a trustee appointed by the international after a strike against a local grocery chain ended badly. He was later elected president of the local. Under his leadership, disagreements with the majority of the labor council increased, culminating in 400’s refusal in the ‘80s to pay per capita levies to the council for its operations.

Also during the early 1970s, various locals of the hotel and restaurant workers – bartenders, pastry chefs, cafeteria workers, and waiters — were all merged into one large local. Ron Richardson emerged from the bartenders to be appointed trustee of the new local 25 during the merger. He was later elected secretary-treasurer, constitutionally the most powerful office in the local.

These two large locals, along with the bakery workers and a maintenance local of the operating engineers, joined forces to form the Food and Service Trades [FAST] Council. This body, eventually, was to compete with the local AFL-CIO council for political influence in the city and its suburbs.

When Peterson made known his intention not to run for reelection in 1982, Jos Williams became the choice of the majority of locals, led by his own union, AFSCME. Richardson, perhaps recognizing the impetus to elect the first black president of the council, promoted a young black staff member of FAST as his choice. When the building trades largely fell in behind Williams, Richardson’s candidate withdrew. Compromise, however, was not to be. The late hour of withdrawal and the failure by UFCW 400 to pay its per capita foreclosed the possibility that the FAST locals would be represented on the AFL-CIO council’s executive board.

Also in that same year, the labor council split over supporting Marion Barry for re-election and made no endorsement. However, Richardson pressured the council to endorse Doug Moore in Ward 5 against [the incumbent] William Spaulding. Many believed Moore was not a credible candidate and Williams sought to postpone any endorsement to obtain consensus on the Ward 5 race. Richardson used the postponement, upheld by the council, as the rational for local 25’s exit from the council, institutionalizing the split that haunts the council to this day [1986].

The suburban-based building trades during this period often played a pivotal role. While occasionally disagreeing with the council’s leadership, they nevertheless participated actively in the council. With the city government’s heavy presence in construction, especially of the convention center, they could hardly afford to do otherwise. Council president emeritus J.C. Turner, until recently head of the International Union of Operating Engineers, also played an important role in promoting unity.

Despite the split with FAST, the council has fought its way back from a decade ago, when labor found that under home rule it had lost much of its influence. Accustomed to going directly to the White House on District matters, labor adapted more slowly than business to the changing politics of the city. Labor was stung by the city’s adoption of anti-worker revisions to workers compensation laws, but got credit for making it impossible for the measure’s chief sponsor, Willie Hardy, to run again in Ward 8 and for electing H.R. Crawford in her stead. In 1982, while sitting out the mayor’s race, the council went all out for Dave Clarke as council chairman, and Clarke won in a tight three-way race.

The council’s presence in the suburbs has also increased. Its territory stretches from Prince William County in Virginia through the District and over to Charles, St. Mary’s and Calvert counties in Maryland. In some ways its vast expanse in these states is an organizational nightmare.

Differences between the council and Local 400 in Virginia and to a lesser extent in Maryland continue to weaken the local labor movement. Regardless of the rationale for the actions of local 25 and local 400, many observers see the opposition of the two white-led locals to the first black central body president as racially insensitive, if not racially motivated. They note that differences with Peterson on strategy were just as intense, but no locals quit the council because of them. This aspect of the split lends and extra edge of antagonism to the disunity.

As Labor Day 1986 rolls around again, organized labor is active in the [Steve] Sachs – [Parren] Mitchell [gubernatorial primary] campaign in Maryland, in Harry Thomas’s Ward 5 campaign in D.C., in the fight for pay equity, workplace health and safety, lower health costs, and rent control, to name a few current struggles.

Despite all its difficulties, the Washington area labor movement has the potential – often realized – to provide resources and leadership in many political battles.

The Washington Socialist is the newsletter and editorial publication of Metro DC DSA. The views and opinions expressed here may not reflect those of the chapter, and publication of any information should not be considered an endorsement. For our chapter's official statements, please visit the Statements section of our main site.

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