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“The Momentum Was Catching On:” Lillian Roberts Describes Organizing Hospital Workers in New York City

Municipal workers led a wave of strikes that made the 1960ís and early 1970ís a highpoint for organized labor militancy in New York City. Teachers, social workers, sanitation workers, and parks employees all fought to improve work conditions, low-paying wage scales, and to reform the cityís social services. Lillian Roberts arrived in New York in 1965 to organize low-paid and often disrespected hospital workers for American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). At the time, AFSCME was competing with the Teamsters to represent the health workers, and the struggle was intense enough for Roberts to carry a brick in her purse. An African-American woman who had grown up on welfare in Chicago, Roberts proved adept at organizing hospital workers, many of whom were African-American women. She and AFSCME prevailed, paving the way for their local D.C. 37 to become the dominant New York municipal union.

Listen to Audio:

ROBERTS: I had to then come here to NY to try to organize, because things were really moving fast, and NY is very complex, very big and they had the health workers here that had to be organized. We had a strike and the Teamsters, of course, were trying to take over. They had the supervisors and they were trying to bully everybody into their local and I had to really get into it with them. And that was tough, a moment of truth for AFSME.

At that time they could join or not join there was no agency shop and because the supervisors were Teamsters they were signing up the workers. So here this challenge was to try to prepare for this and they wanted to elect everybody, one whole unit. This would have given us city-wide recognition because there was 22,000 people involved in this election and that was a lot for the city. And here I’m coming from outside and I had to have something unique in order to convince them that their interest is with us. At that time we had the Manpower program coming into being and I inquired to find out if the union could be a party to that and we could have upgrading programs for nursing, dieticians, supervisors and what have you. So I put out a leaflet letting them know I had inquired and if we win the election we were going to have these upgrading programs. We would go into the areas where we were strong and we’d parlay that into the other areas, and that was in the evenings, nights, and during the day. It was very hard. The Teamsters were busy making trouble for us any way they could and they didn’t have meetings because they didn’t have nothing to say. And once we put out our leaflet and communicated exactly how it would work we knew we had something going for us. It was their election to better themselves, basically that’s what we created.

When they found out that I wasn’t afraid and we were going night and day the Teamsters started picking on the guys. So I’d go with them. They’d have the women start fighting with them, anything they could do to create turmoil so we would be off-limits and couldn’t go into the hospital. A particular time we were coming home after a successful meeting and the Teamsters, as soon as they heard I was around they would send the people out just to harass us. I remember one day I was at a meeting and it was late when I left the meeting and they was following me and somebody had shot at my window and it was rough, but I was stubborn but I was very upset too. I stopped the police, I saw a police car and I told them these men are following me and I want to get home. So when he stopped them they told him I was out hooking men (laughs). They knew it was a lie. They had stabbed a couple of our guys, it was bad. I remember I used to carry around with me a brick in my purse, because I knew I couldn’t have a knife or a gun, I said I’ll have a fighting chance if I take this bag and hit somebody over the head with it. And I must have burst out I don’t know how many purses because I had this little brick in it.

BERNHARDT: Did you ever use it?

ROBERTS: No I didn’t have to use it.

That day they were doing the vote I was outside and I was saying “This will make a difference, just remember what I told you about your career.” We were just talking to them and everything, we couldn’t give them any paper, they had the rules and regulations. When it all came down we had beat them by over a hundred and something at Bellevue, so I knew that that was signal that the momentum was catching on.

Source: Interviewed by Debra Bernhardt, Lee Johnson, and Nicole Burrows 6/9/99 and 6/14/99
Courtesy of the Wagner Labor Archives