When the Black Political Class Betrayed Black Workers

Martin Luther King Jr died supporting striking black sanitation workers in the South. Less than a decade later, a black Atlanta mayor and King’s own father were attacking that same group of workers and breaking their strike. Black urban governance is meaningless without a commitment to strengthening the public sector and rejecting the logic of austerity.

Downtown Atlanta, GA, December 2007. Ron Reiring / Flickr

It was April 4, 1977 and Martin Luther King, Sr, in partnership with the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, was speaking to the local press. His words, coming nine years to the day after his son’s assassination in Memphis, are full of tragic irony.

King offered his backing to Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta, and urged striking sanitation workers from AFSCME Local 1644 to return to work: “Now, if you do everything to accommodate them, then I say, fire them.”

These mostly black workers were in the same sector and union as the ones Martin Luther King, Jr championed during his last campaign in Memphis in 1968. The response from the local black political class was not the one heard from figures like King, Jr in the late 1960s.

The 1977 strike of Atlanta’s sanitation workers lasted from March 28 to April 16. Its significance went beyond typical municipal labor disputes. This conflict highlighted the growing contradictions between a rising black political class and the black working class they governed. And the weaponization of identity by Maynard Jackson and allied black civic organizations against the union’s demands is still with us today.

The 1970s saw both militant public employee unions and difficult urban fiscal constraints. Across the country, many politicians, including those who ran as progressive civil rights champions, were finding that direct confrontations with public workers were actually popular and politically beneficial. In this climate, Maynard Jackson sought to prove that the new layer of black politicians could be just as “fiscally responsible” — in other words, anti-union — as those that came before.

This strike holds a lesson that is playing out in cities across the country today: black urban governance is meaningless without a commitment to strengthening the public sector and rejecting the logic of austerity.

Shifting Allegiances

Maynard Jackson had a history with AFSCME Local 1644 dating back to 1970. Sanitation workers had struck for higher wages and to check the prerogatives of city management. Atlanta’s white mayor at the time, Sam Massell, reacted by firing workers and using prisoners to remove garbage.

Jackson, formerly a lawyer with the National Labor Relations Board and now vice-mayor, strongly defended the union and called their low wages “a disgrace before God.” City workers appreciated his support: they were a crucial bloc of the coalition that elected Jackson as Atlanta’s first black mayor in 1973.

Jackson’s rise embodied an interpretation of “black power” as synonymous with black electoral power. Even Stokely Carmichael, often seen as representative of the radical wing of black power, echoed a similar vision when actually articulating a program for this slogan. In Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, they advocate for an ethnic group politics closely mirroring how other white ethnic groups have used urban political machines to advance.

In short, black people achieving electoral power would grant them more access to the benefits of political patronage.

The Atlanta that Jackson inherited as mayor was undergoing significant economic and demographic transformations. Whites were fleeing to the northern suburbs where more job growth and economic opportunities were opening up. Most of the city’s black working class lived in the central urban areas, while the black middle class was concentrated in the south. The class divisions within the black population were especially sharp in Atlanta, which had some of the most prosperous black communities in the country.

Numerous thriving college institutions and black-owned businesses created a stratum of college-educated black people who were not dependent on municipal or blue-collar jobs. Jackson oversaw an economic growth model that benefited white-collar occupations such as retail trade, insurance, finance, and real estate. He expended considerable political capital on making sure that minority-owned firms received city contracts.

The demands of public sector workers clashed with the model of development advanced by Jackson and the dominant economic interests in Atlanta. The mayor’s electoral hopes were deeply dependent on the social forces favoring fiscal austerity when it came to public spending. By the time of the 1977 strike, Maynard Jackson had made clear to both white and black business interests that he shared their priorities and economic outlook.

Jackson and the Strike

 In January 1977, sanitation workers began a wildcat strike after being forced to work in excessively cold weather conditions. Despite an agreement that city employees did not have to work in temperatures below 25 degrees, their pay was docked for this action. More workers walked off the job to get their pay reinstated, but they were only given half their wages that were docked.

In the words of AFSCME organizer Leamon Hood, quoted in the Atlanta Constitution, the strike was less about the pay and more about “the principle of someone sitting in a warm office and telling you to go out in cold weather when you couldn’t even get the ice off the cans.”

More broadly, the union was pressing the Jackson Administration for a fifty cent per hour wage increase that would put the workers’ salary at $7,000 annually. Jackson was gearing up for reelection the same year and needed to ensure support from business elites and the middle classes.

Though acknowledging that the city’s sanitation workers deserve a raise, Jackson cited budget constraints as the reason why they could not be granted. In response, AFSCME Local 1664 took out full-page ads in the New York Times and local newspapers highlighting Atlanta’s budget surpluses.

The second strike beginning on March 28 was more official and backed by AFSCME’s local and national leadership. Creative tactics beyond the traditional picket lines were deployed by the union. During a nationally televised Atlanta Braves game, strikers unfurled a banner reading “Maynard’s Word is Garbage.” Trash was dumped right on the steps of City Hall to dramatically convey the message.

Despite the increasing pressure, Jackson held firm. Consistently framing the actions of the union as reckless, the mayor lamented, “It is unfortunate in the extreme that employees are put in jeopardy of losing jobs because of irresponsible actions of leaders who purport to represent their best interests.” He was able to avoid concessions because of the broad coalition of community support he had built.

This coalition of the old white civic/business elite and black middle class based their electoral support on his ability to stand up to the unions and prove that black leaders were deserving of high political office. The editors of the Atlanta Daily World asked, “Why stir up a virtual racial civil strike, when we are striving to get a black elected to Congress?”

Jackson had fully shifted from the workers’ ally to their antagonist. He gave the strikers until April 1 to return to work, after which he began mass firings. Still projecting reluctance, Jackson said, “We have turned the other cheek so many times that we have no more cheeks to turn … Now, time has run out. The city has no choice but to act, and in my opinion AFSCME is to blame.”

The strong opposition to the work stoppage from various black civic organizations allowed Jackson to frame the strike as an attack by a white-led union on the political aspirations of black people, embodied in his administration. Organizations like the Atlanta Business League, Chamber of Commerce, Urban League, and Southern Christian Leadership Council all stood by the mayor in opposition to the sanitation workers. Jackson claimed, “I see myself as only the first domino in labor’s Southern domino theory. If organized labor makes the move on black political leadership, I think it’s going to have severe consequences for labor Southwise, particularly AFSCME.”

Jackson didn’t have to make this shift, however. There were some veterans of the Civil Rights Movement who did not so easily forget their labor roots. James Farmer, co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, tried to build community support for the strike as director of the Coalition of Public Employees.

The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) rallied behind the union and maintained a clear-eyed understanding of the cynical dynamics at play. The CBTU lambasted the mayor for using “black workers as political pawns in his efforts to please a middle-class black political constituency and satisfy the black establishment.”

This support was not enough to maintain morale, however. Two weeks after the mass firings, trash pick-up had returned to 79 percent of its normal service. Over four hundred strikers had decided to go back to work, while the city also hired over two hundred additional replacement workers. The militant core that stayed out despite the odds were mostly isolated in the water department.

On April 16, the strike officially ended. Most of the workers who walked out were rehired by the end of the year, but at lower hourly rates. Jackson scored a decisive blow and would eventually win reelection later that year.

Black Workers and Urban Politics Today

Political skirmishes very similar to the 1977 sanitation strike have repeatedly played out in cities across the country over the last forty years. Many cities have an entrenched black political class presiding over a sustained attack on the public sector and the labor movement. Given that black workers are disproportionately represented in the public sector workforce (at 20 percent) and public sector unions, these attacks have proven disastrous for the majority of black Americans. In general, black workers are actually more likely to be union members than white, Hispanic, or Asian American workers.

The Atlanta sanitation strike should serve as a poignant reminder to guard against shallow appeals to identity from political elites. In Atlanta, a common bond of racial identity was not stronger than the competing material interests of black workers and elites (most of whom, in Atlanta, were black). This is even more true today. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s recent battle against the Chicago Teachers Union and their movement for public education is just one recent example of this dynamic at work. Political regimes that do not vigorously support core institutions like public education, federal and municipal employment, and strong labor unions are no friend of black workers.