The Charleston hospital strike of 1969

The Charleston strike of Black hospital workers in 1969 was one of the key moments in Southern labor history. Charleston, South Carolina had always been one of the key cities of the Old South. Post-Civil War, the city had declined economically, but post-World War II industrial growth gave the city’s business owners a boost.

In the late 1960s, the city’s large Black population was deeply impoverished. Half lived below or just above the official poverty line. Many hospital workers, often women, made just $1.30 an hour.

In 1969, these same hospital workers went on strike, bringing together labor and civil rights organizations to mobilize thousands of residents across the city in support. A vigorous movement led to over 1,000 arrests, served as the lever for hospital workers’ victories along the East Coast and opened the doors to more significant political participation for Charleston’s Black community.

The social position of Black people throughout South Carolina was one of almost complete subordination, with no Black elected officials in the state legislature and very few city officials. The city’s “fathers” had always favored a strategy of co-option rather than hard-edged violence to deal with civil rights unrest, and had used mostly symbolic measures to resolve disputes through the early 1960s.

Despite this, there were circles of more militant activists in the broader community and among hospital workers. Bill Saunders, a Korean War veteran, was key organizer of a partially underground and armed Black self-defense force.

Medical-College Hospital, the site of the strike, employed no Black doctors or nurses at the time, hiring Black workers as nurses aides and service workers—the lowest paid and most physically demanding work.

Mary Moultrie was a nurse’s aide at Medical-College Hospital, which refused to honor her Licensed Practical Nurse certification because of her race. Working with Saunders, Moultrie began to organize a group of Black workers around various workplace injustices. The real tipping point for the strike, however, came in 1968, when a meeting over grievances with a hospital administrator led to the firing of twelve workers, including Moultrie.

The workers had been in contact with New York-based healthcare union Local 1199, of which they organized a local (1199B). Led by Moultrie, they decided to go out on strike demanding the rehiring of the workers and official recognition for their union.

The strike begins, the country watches

In early March of 1969, the 400 workers of the newly minted Local 1199B in Charleston took to the picket line. The Charleston establishment responded quickly with an injunction against the strikers, limiting their ability to picket. Moultrie told a support rally in a local stadium about the legal limitation: “We could put only five people on this field from goal post to goal post. I think even the governor, as slow as he is, could get through a picket line like that.”

The union, however, never expected to win the fight solely on the picket line. In New York, Local 1199 had a longstanding relationship with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) formed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had once called Local 1199 his “favorite union.”

Local 1199 invited the SCLC to join the Charleston struggle, and the civil rights organization responded by turning Charleston into the centerpiece of its organizing work. Similar to how the SCLC had approached other large-scale campaigns during the civil rights era, they aimed, along with Local 1199, to essentially make Charleston ungovernable, using mass demonstrations and other tactics to paralyze the city economically.

Mass marches began following the judge’s injunction and continued throughout the strike; by the Spring, activity became significantly heightened with one stretch at the end of April seeing ten mass marches in only six days. Mother’s Day of 1969 saw a march of 10,000 mostly Black Charlestonians, along with major national leaders like Walter Reuther of the United Autoworkers and Coretta Scott King. The SCLC also crafted economic tactics to clog the aisles and check-out lines at local stores.

In the background of the mass marches and other actions, Bill Saunders and others formed a “community militia” and took individual action to protect strikers and demonstrators. This militancy often placed Saunders at odds with some leaders of the mass campaign but acted as another form of pressure on city elites.

By May, the struggle had reached a stalemate, with northern liberals increasingly calling for federal mediation—something that the Nixon administration signaled it was willing to do. However, Nixon’s southern allies were opposed to that possibility, scuttling a potential deal at the final hour. This set off two weeks of intense struggle, which included night marches that frequently clashed with police, large-scale arrests and the torch being put to some buildings. The potential for more labor unrest was significant, with port workers considering walking off, and Local 1199 supporters preparing a union drive in the states textile industry.

Seeing the possibility of a wider social struggle, the Nixon administration applied pressure on the hospital to rehire the 12 fired workers and other strikers, and to establish a grievance procedure, and credit union. This brought the strike to an end as union leaders felt that even without official recognition, they had established a toehold.

This hope, however, proved illusory as hospital administrators took advantage of post-strike divisions among the workers, and the loss of national attention to chip away at the union’s influence. To this day, hospital workers have yet to be unionized.

Lessons from a defeat

Was the strike a failure? It fell short of its direct goals, but the immediate repercussions of the strike were significant. In Charleston, the strike helped politicize the Black population and voter registration skyrocketed. This allowed for the election of the first two Black state legislators in decades.

In just a few months following the end of the Charleston struggle, Local 1199 had organized 7,000 workers in all the Baltimore hospitals when administrators and city officials decided they did not want “another Charleston.” Other drives in the mid-Atlantic used momentum from Charleston to organize workers in places like Philadelphia, Penn. and across New England.

It is no surprise that other hospitals and cities offered so little resistance. The Charleston workers had won a partial victory in one of the Deep South’s key bastions. It took all the might of the state government, and the intervention by federal authorities to prevent 400 striking workers from pushing the whole state into upheaval. This clearly influenced officials elsewhere.

That is the legacy of the 1969 Charleston hospital workers strike: even when the immediate battle results in defeat, the combined action of oppressed and impoverished working people is our most powerful weapon against the combined might of the capitalist class, its courts, politicians, and media.

Much of the information from this article comes from Leon Fink’s “Union Power, Soul Power: The Story of 1199B and Labor’s Search for A Southern Strategy” (1983) in Southern Changes, Vol 5, No. 2.

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