Room at the Top: Black Women in District Council 37, AFSCME

Room at the Top: Black Women in District Council 37, AFSCME

For years, one of the most exploited segments in public services had been the nonprofessionals in New York City’s hospitals, public schools, and governmental offices. Receiving the lowest pay among municipal workers, they remained primarily outside the organized labor movement, segregated in jobs without status. By the 1960s, they were predominantly black women, working in settings that included hot, crowded kitchens, unpleasant laundries, and large dehumanized hospital wards. Confronting the professionally trained (e.g., doctors, nurses, teachers, school supervisors, and office managers), they often experienced demeaning treatment and menial assignments. Trapped in their jobs, and with little education or training, they constituted the city’s public sector underclass. And yet, within the hospital setting, for example, these black women performed the most direct, crucial services.

To organize them was no simple task, with unyielding management opposition, a dispersed hospital system spread over vast areas in the city’s five counties, general ignorance about the labor movement, and suspicion as to the ability and determination of unions to provide the channels for resolving their multifaceted problems. It was a slow, tortuous road for those from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) who went out to organize.

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Lima