Ernest B. Crofoot, a former labor organizer who later headed Council 67 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, died Friday of complications from cancer at his Annapolis home. He was 88.
"Ernie was one hell of a trade unionist," said Ed A. Mohler, who went to work for Mr. Crofoot at AFSCME in 1968. "He put together a first-class staff at AFSCME and had people from the United Auto Workers, machinists, building trades and other unions who had a variety of experiences."
"He had a strong vision for low-wage workers and went throughout the state spreading that vision," said Glenn S. Middleton, state director of AFSCME. "He had a strong affinity for them and wanted them to have a voice at the table."
Ernest Bayard Crofoot, the son of a Pennsylvania Railroad worker and a homemaker, was born in Clarksburg, W.Va., and in his early youth moved with his family to Rock Hall.
He graduated in 1942 from Archmere Academy in Claymont, Del. Though he was fluent in German, he was unable to enlist in the armed services during World War II because he had earlier suffered from tuberculosis.
After briefly working as a lifeguard, Mr. Crofoot went to work as a machinist at the old Glenn L. Martin Co. facility in Middle River, where he was elected a shop steward in the United Auto Workers local that represented workers at the plant.
"In those days, being a union official of any type was fraught with tension, threats and other difficulties," said a son, Ernest A. Crofoot of Chestertown.
"Nonetheless, my father not only represented workers faithfully and successfully, but also became a master machinist upon whom Martin's relied to operate some of its first computer-assisted machinery," he said. "His UAW career ended when he and other local union officials opposed a candidate hand-picked by the then-UAW president, Walter Reuther."
Mr. Crofoot became an organizer for the fledgling AFSCME. In 1964, he chartered Council 67 and served as its executive director for the next 22 years, retiring in 1986. He also served as international vice president of AFSCME.
During Mr. Crofoot's tenure, he helped develop the union from a small struggling group with no collective bargaining rights to a 40,000-member organization that at his retirement negotiated 33 employee contracts in the state.
"When I came on, the plight of municipal employees was just incredible. Not one municipality in the state even paid time and a half for overtime," Mr. Crofoot told The Evening Sun in a 1985 interview.
"The public's attitude has changed toward municipal unions. In most places, you don't have to strike anymore to be taken seriously," he said.
"Ernie was an extremely bright guy and knew what he was after," said Mr. Mohler, who retired as president of the Maryland-District of Columbia AFL-CIO.
"He was personable and was relaxed around people, whether they were mayors, county executives or public workers," he said. "Ernie was very sincere and believed in a fair atmosphere, but would tolerate no foolishness. He had a mission, and it was to help these people."
Mr. Crofoot presided over the longest strike of public workers in Maryland.
"It was in 1967-1968, and concerned Garrett County highway workers wanting to cast a vote for or against regarding union representation, and they finally won," said Mr. Mohler. "Ernie knew where we were going, and there was going to be no compromise."
Mr. Middleton met Mr. Crofoot during the summer of 1974, when he was a correction officer who had joined city sanitation and sewer workers in a strike over wages.
"I've been locked up twice with Ernie, and one was during the 1974 strike," recalled Mr. Middleton. "He always believed in an orderly protest, and he walked the picket line. And he never backed down from anyone, whether they were politicians, mayors or governors. It was always about the workers."
At the time of Mr. Crofoot's retirement, Jeffrey A. Austin, then the city's labor commissioner, told The Evening Sun, "He's the consummate union supporter. … When he leaves, it will be the end of an era. I've always respected him. He states his case forcefully, but he has always taken a very pragmatic approach to negotiating."
Mr. Crofoot was a founder in 1983 of the Labor Management Coalition, a group of about 80 state business and labor unions that joined together in an attempt to put a ceiling on steadily rising health care costs.
Mr. Crofoot did not stay retired for long. That fall, Gov. Harry R. Hughes appointed him to the Maryland Health Services Cost Review Commission — the first labor union official to be named to the commission — which established hospital rates.
He subsequently served as commissioner of the Maryland Health Commission and as commissioner of the Maryland Nursing Home Oversight Commission. He was a past board member of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Maryland and CareFirst of Maryland, and had been on the board of the Maryland Citizens Health Initiativel.
He had also been chairman of the Anne Arundel County Personnel Appeals Board and had been president of United Seniors of Maryland, an advocacy group.
The former Parkville and Bowie resident, who had lived in Annapolis for the past 15 years, was a former board member and vice president of the Heritage Harbour Community Association. He had been a member of the board of the Lyric Theatre.
He was an avid reader and enjoyed photography and snorkeling, and had been president of the Maryland Water Bugs, a scuba diving club.
His wife of 30 years, the former Mary Frances Snell, died in 1976.
Mr. Crofoot was a communicant of St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Annapolis. A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at St. John Neumann Roman Catholic Church, 620 Bestgate Road, Annapolis.
Surviving are his wife of 17 years, the former Michele Ryan; another son, George C. Crofoot of Ellicott City; three daughters, Carol C. Hayes of Bluffton, S.C., Gail C. Mayer of Morristown, N.J., and Maria C. Bowling of Dublin, Va.; a stepson, Charles Ryan III of Largo; a stepdaughter, Kimberly R. Winchester of Annapolis; 10 grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren. Another son, Timothy F. Crofoot, died in 1995.