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50 years later, marking a historic victory for a union in rural Maryland | COMMENTARY

In the spring of 1970, road workers in conservative Garrett County in Western Maryland went on strike in an effort to join a union. It turned out to be the longest strike by public employees in U.S. history, and it was successful. The state will install this historical marker about the strike on Route 135 in Mountain Lake Park.
In the spring of 1970, road workers in conservative Garrett County in Western Maryland went on strike in an effort to join a union. It turned out to be the longest strike by public employees in U.S. history, and it was successful. The state will install this historical marker about the strike on Route 135 in Mountain Lake Park. (Maryland Historical Trust)

One hundred eighty-seven inches of snow fell on Garrett County, Maryland’s westernmost county, during the winter of 1969-1970. So it should be noted that, when they decided to strike against the county that employed them, the men who plowed all that snow waited for spring to walk off the job.

The Garrett County road workers could have formed their picket lines in winter, but that would have brought life in Friendsville, Oakland and other communities to a standstill. Then again, a strike in winter might have forced the stubborn, anti-union Garrett County Board of Commissioners to reach a settlement sooner, avoiding what is believed to have been the longest strike by public employees in U.S. history.

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The men who plowed and maintained Garrett’s roads and bridges wanted to become part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. On April 7, after two of the three county commissioners refused to recognize the wish of the workers to unionize, the men went on strike. They stayed on the picket lines for 227 days. When it ended on Nov. 19, 1970, The Baltimore Sun reported that the strike had eclipsed by 89 days a 1965 strike by sanitation workers in Bowling Green, Ohio, previously the longest such strike in the country.

Now, on its 50th anniversary, the state of Maryland will commemorate the effort to unionize a staff of essential workers in one of its most conservative counties. The Maryland Historical Trust, a division of the state Department of Planning, agreed to install a marker recognizing the strike. It has been cast, painted and tucked away in storage awaiting a dedication postponed because of coronavirus.

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Among those who pushed for the marker is Len Shindel, a retired steelworker from Baltimore now living near Deep Creek Lake. He took an interest in the strike and has been interviewing its surviving participants for a book.

The strike, Shindel wrote in a recent article for the local historical society, “led to a virtual political revolution in Garrett County that moved citizens … to oust Republican commissioners and elect three Democrats.”

In 1970, about 21,000 people lived in Garrett County, and three Republican commissioners ran local government. With so much snow — Garrett averaged about 110 inches annually for many years — county residents depended heavily on the crews to clear nearly 700 miles of roads during and after storms.

At the time, road workers were making $1.97 an hour. They had formed an employees’ association, but in 1969 a growing number of its members wanted to affiliate with AFSCME. Seeking unionization might sound odd for public employees in a rural county, but consider context. At the time, public workers were organizing across the country. In 1968, sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while he visited that Tennessee city in support of the workers there.

“In the wake of [King’s] assassination, AFSCME organizers were winning battles across the U.S. to affiliate their union with hundreds of local associations of public workers,” Shindel notes. “In 1969, three Garrett County roads department workers went to the Western Maryland Central Labor Council’s office in Cumberland, Allegany County [and] met with organizers from AFSCME to begin planning a campaign for affiliation.”

The workers wanted a seniority system, better wages and overtime pay instead of “comp time.”

But two of the three Garrett County commissioners took a hard line. One of them prided himself on keeping taxes low; he opposed not only an AFSCME affiliation and a pay raise for the roads crews, he didn’t want the county to build a community college and, says Shindel, he was not keen about making Garrett the destination for tourists it subsequently became.

When the road crews went on strike, the commissioners warned the workers they would be fired if they did not return to their jobs by April 13. All but 13 of the 152 workers refused the back-to-work order. “Strikers’ wives played an important role in the struggle from its inception,” Shindel notes. “They joined their husbands in a march around the courthouse in Oakland on the very day they were ordered to return to work.”

The strike continued into the summer of 1970. In August, the commissioners tried to hire contractors and replacement workers to patch potholes, but a demonstration and standoff by the strikers in Oakland put a quick end to that idea.

Support for the strikers came from the Baltimore area. Members of AFSCME drove out to Oakland and took part in a 62-vehicle caravan. Some county residents got impatient and complained that the commissioners’ stubborn refusal to negotiate with the workers left roads in bad shape. Ministers tried to intervene. Jerry Wurf, national president of AFSCME, visited Oakland and suggested moving the dispute to arbitration. But the commissioners remained intransigent — all the way through the November election.

In the end, county voters came down on the side of the workers, throwing out the two Republican commissioners who stood for reelection and voting in three pro-union Democrats. (This, mind you, in a county where a majority of voters has never supported a Democrat for president.) The new commissioners agreed to recognize the union, rehire all the men, increase their pay and improve working conditions. The agreement guaranteed fair compensation for keeping Garrett County roads safe when the big snows come.

Look for the roadside marker later this year on Route 135 in Mountain Lake Park, outside Oakland.

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