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AFSCME history: The fight against discrimination in the District of Columbia government

Members of Local 1 hold a banner during a rally outside the White House, circa 1968-1970.
By Stefanie Caloia ·

DETROIT – “Several years ago Marvin Fleming, at that time a WBR-3 Trash Collector in the Division of Sanitation, became the instrument through which one of the most deliberate and pernicious systems of racial discrimination in the District government was smashed,” the letter said.

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Letter from Warren Morse, Local 1 business agent, to James Slaughter, Commissioners' Council on Human Relations, regarding Marvin Fleming, Sept. 8, 1967.

When I came across this letter, dated Sept. 8, 1967, in the AFSCME Local 1: Washington, D.C. records, I immediately wanted to know more. Who was Marvin Fleming? What did he go through? Where is he now? How many other stories are out there of people smashing pernicious forms of discrimination that we don’t know about?

The letter continues with some clues: “Over the determined resistance of Mr. Roeder, Division Chief, and Mr. Redd, Chief of the Incineration and Trash Collection Branch, Mr. Fleming was able to receive on-the-job training as a Crane Operator without first serving an apprenticeship as a Weighmaster. He has since been the subject of repeated harassment.”

Marvin Fleming was a member AFSCME Government Workers Union Local 1, Washington, D.C. The local consisted of employees in the departments of Public Health, Public Welfare, Buildings and Grounds, and Sanitary Engineering.

Since at least 1960, the local began to push hard against racist practices within the D.C. government. The April 1966 issue of AFSCME’s Public Employee magazine said, “… job discrimination was a basic fact of life. …The Division of Sanitation was worst of all. Not even token steps had been made toward opening the higher grade, skilled jobs” [to Black men].

Warren Morse, business agent for the union who handled member grievances, noted in 1964 that most of the 1,600 sanitation workers in the District were Black, and yet the higher grade positions were primarily occupied by white men. For a long time, until the union got involved, there was no formal promotion policy at all, resulting in nepotism and the promotion of white workers far more often than Black workers.

Morse charged that when white men were hired for entry-level jobs, they were assigned tasks like fetching coffee. They had extra time for on-the-job training to learn higher-skilled tasks, enabling them to be promoted. Meanwhile, Black workers completed the “dirty and arduous tasks” such as trash collection, sweeping floors and cleaning trucks.

One of the higher skilled jobs was that of crane operator. To be a crane operator, you first needed a promotion to weighmaster. To be weighmaster, you had to know how to operate a crane. Since Black workers were not able to get that on-the-job training, they were effectively shut out of the promotion process, according to a Nov. 18, 1964, letter. The union recommended a formal training program to make the higher grades accessible to all. Though the Sanitation Division initially agreed, they did not follow through until the Local 1 pressed for it.

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Stefanie Caloia is AFSCME’s archivist at the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University.

Eventually, Marvin Fleming was able to get the training. As alluded to in the letter, he was then harassed by management with letters of reprimand for very questionable reasons. The records indicate he likely did get his promotion. But that’s about where the research case goes cold.

Through the course of searching for Marvin Fleming, I also came across George Tillman. In the Public Employee article mentioned earlier, Tillman was described as a militant who was largely responsible for Local 1’s efforts to battle racism. He chaired a civil rights committee within the local, which first met in 1963 – about one week after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The notes from that meeting stated a desire to capitalize on momentum from the march and address the issue of job discrimination.

This small step of forming a civil rights committee was most likely a direct precursor for Marvin Fleming getting his promotion. George Tillman became vice-president of Local 1 and later, when it was organized into AFSCME District Council 20, he became president of the new Sanitation Local 2091.

No doubt there are infinite untold stories like these from across the country, stories of AFSCME members and others fighting injustice in small and big ways who don’t get much attention. People like George Tillman, the militant who led the union’s efforts against discrimination. And Marvin Fleming, the man who smashed one of the most deliberate and pernicious forms of racial discrimination in district government employment.

Editor’s note: Stefanie Caloia is AFSCME’s archivist at the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University. She is available to provide research assistance on AFSCME’s history and can be reached at SCaloia@wayne.edu or @AFSCMEArchivist on Twitter.

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