"I Had to Break the Law to Force Him to Comply:" Lillian Roberts Recalls Organizing State Hospital Workers
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“I Had to Break the Law to Force Him to Comply:” Lillian Roberts Recalls Organizing State Hospital Workers

Lillian Roberts came to New York in 1965 during a peak in labor militancy led by state and municipal government employees. Teachers, social workers, and sanitation workers all fought for better working conditions, improved pay scales, and reformed social services. Roberts, an African-American woman from Chicago, was an organizer for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and helped AFSCME’s local D.C. 37 win the right to represent thousands of hospital employees. She led series of strikes at New York State hospitals to protest Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s opposition to unionization. Her efforts landed her in jail for a month, where she found it hard despite gestures of solidarity from her fellow prisoners.

Listen to Audio:

ROBERTS: The Governor, who was Rockefeller at that time, under the Taylor Law had given the representation to the Civil Service Employees Association, which was an insurance company. He said that they represented the workers and therefore that they would have time to do their bargaining and maybe we would have an election later on. This is one big unit, which we objected to because the law clearly said that there would be units and he, of course, had none and he was bargaining with them. So my international union asked me if I would go in and organize an institutional unit and to organize institutional workers because we were strong in that area. I started to get enough numbers together so that we could challenge them. And of course, the Governor, we said he was wrong Governor Rockefeller was wrong, that he had no right to hand over these workers and they had a right, of course, to an election. And he ignored us and I was busy signing people up and drafting a program. I drafted a similar program, career development and all the things that we had in the city. And they were always lagging behind in terms of their wages anyway.

We must have had that drive for 4 or 5 months and we just couldn’t get him to budge. So I had to talk with them about going out on strike in order to force the Governor to comply with the laws. I had to break the law to force him to comply. That was the first time I realized that laws were made in the main sometimes to handcuff those who they feel are powerless. So I talked to the workers and we went out on strike. Creedmore [Hospital] was the first place, we were very successful with them. Even the patients were helping us, it was just wonderful, the spirit that was there. We went to Bronx State and we were going to go to Manhattan State. They wanted to know which hospital was next and part of our strategy was not to tell them. Whenever the president of that institution felt he was ready he let me know hours ahead of time and then he’d go and of course we’d be there for him. We created quite an inconvenience, they would have to move those patients that really needed the lock-up to other institutions. By them not know knowing where we was going it was driving them crazy. We called it a roving strike. As a result of that they were looking for me and I guess I looked like all the workers, because I was on the line the same as they were. Finally they caught up with me. And I think they expected to lock up Jerry Worth because this was under state jurisdiction, really not under Victor Gotbaum’s jurisdiction. Jerry did not show up in court so they locked me up. I guess they thought I would be afraid. But I was not, I was so tired I just wanted a place to sleep (laughter).

BERNHARDT: Did you have a meeting or discuss this with Jerry Worth?

ROBERTS: He had mentioned to me that “You know, you might go to jail.” And I said, “So?” You know it was for a month, that was the maximum sentence they could give you. So they gave me the month. If I was organizing then I felt nobody should take my place. After all if you’re a woman and you’re out there and you’re working you don’t want to be treated differently. So I stood my ground. I was the only one there in court so I was the one that went to jail. And it was a very demeaning experience for me. It was a civil jail where they had material witnesses and people who were waiting to go to court for some reason, immigrants waiting to be deported, gang members who were going to testify and so on. But at that time, it being a holiday, after a couple of days I was the only prisoner, the only female prisoner. And you didn’t have heat on the weekend, because most people were out. It was very cold. But I must say that the different prisoners realized that my fight was their fight so they’d sneak in and send heat up at least once.

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