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Garrett County Road Workers Strike: 50 Years Later

Photos from the front page of The Public Employee, August 1970
By Pete Levine and Stefanie Caloia ·
Garrett County Road Workers Strike: 50 Years Later
AFSCME Local 1834 road workers on strike for union recognition. (Photo courtesy Walter P. Reuther Library)

It was 50 years today when the road workers who served Western Maryland’s Garrett County went on strike for union recognition, and the stark challenges facing the workers and their lessons of perseverance remain as relevant in 2020 as they were in 1970.

It remains one of the longest public employee strikes in American history – 227 days. Then-AFSCME President Jerry Wurf was quoted in 1971 by our union’s now-defunct newspaper, The Public Employee, as saying this about the strike: “It is one of the most remarkable demonstrations of solidarity and determination that we have ever seen in the union.”

Prior to their bid to unionize, nearly 150 men had served as part of an unaffiliated group called the Garrett County Road Employees Association for 13 years. The road workers had some rights, like collective bargaining and dues checkoff, however, for their back-breaking work of maintaining the region’s mountain roads, many were earning poverty wages, despite having worked for years and, in some cases, even decades.

Workers like Clarence Bowmer had been with the county for 28 years. When he started with the road department, the average wage was 55 cents an hour. At the time of the strike, it was $1.97.

“You need the union to protect your job,” said another worker, Bill Finch, as quoted in The Public Employee. “You can go in some mornings and get sent home. They tell you they don’t need you.”

The workers had no choice but to accept whatever work was given and had no say when they were sent home.

Seeking better wages and better working conditions, 123 of the 144 workers voted to affiliate with AFSCME.

However, the Garrett County Commission refused to recognize AFSCME as the bargaining agent for the workers. So, the workers struck on April 7, 1970.

AFSCME International President Jerry Wurf talks to a member of the press in support of AFSCME Local 1834 road workers, several of whom stand behind him in the image. To Wurf's left is Ernest Crofoot of AFSCME Council 67 and Jack Sowers, President of Local 1834. (AFSCME photo by Tom Castor/Walter P. Reuther Library)

The county commissioners fired the men for striking, even going so far as to try to prevent them from obtaining welfare benefits. However, the commission was unsuccessful in that attempt. In fact, then-AFSCME International Vice President and AFSCME Council 67 Executive Director Ernie Crofoot discovered “that quite a few of them were eligible for food stamps even when they were working because their wages were so low.”

As the strike dragged on, the county commissioners eventually tried to hire scabs. However, the scabs were unable to get past the men on the strike line. A violent confrontation between the scabs and the workers was narrowly avoided. Not one piece of machinery moved during the strike and not one man crossed a picket line.

Finally, in November 1970, two of the three county commissioners who’d opposed the workers’ demands lost their elections, and the local was able to negotiate an end to the strike.

A labor election was then held, and workers voted 110-10 in favor of selecting AFSCME as their sole bargaining agent.

The new local, Local 1834, won a 7% wage increase, dues checkoff, and overtime pay. Then, in January 1971, Local 1834 members approved their first contract, which included a 12% pay increase (above the previous 7% increase), a grievance procedure, increased sick leave, paid holidays and more.

“The men of Local 1834 have given Garrett County an education in trade unionism,” Wurf said, “they’ve made it clear that they won’t be pushed around by the boss.”

The wins of these workers in 1971 are part of a rich labor history in Maryland, and show the power of the union for Maryland’s public service employees.

“It is important to remember and reflect on the sacrifices and the wins of our past to remember where we came from and what AFSCME has always fought for,” said current AFSCME Council 67 Executive Director and AFSCME International Vice President Glen Middleton. “We are stronger together than we are divided, and paying tribute to events in our history like the Garrett County Road Workers Strike is a timely reminder of that.”

An AFSCME-backed proposal to erect a historical marker to commemorate the strike has been accepted by the Maryland Historical Trust.

(Stefanie Caloia is AFSCME’s archivist at the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University, Detroit)

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