Part 5 in a series
on DC 37 history
F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University
A protest in Feb.
1985 outside the South African embassy in Washington D.C., led to the arrest of
78 members of DC 37, one of numerous actions by union members to oppose the system
A strong commitment to human rights runs like a current
through the history of District Council 37. No matter how tough the battle for
bread and butter, this union always championed the struggle for civil rights and
economic justice for all.
In 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was
jailed in Birmingham, Ala., activists hit the streets with picket signs demanding
his release. Busloads of members joined the mighty March on Washington for Jobs
and Freedom, where King gave his famous I Have a Dream speech.
Congressman John Lewis, who spoke at the march as head of the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee, told PEP that, From the early days of the movement
and through the years, the struggle for equality and justice for all Americans
relied on AFSCME and DC 37 more than any other union. You were not just supporters,
you were part of the civil rights movement.
The union carried its commitment to equality into
the international struggle against the apartheid segregation system in South Africa.
The campaign to make the city stop buying products from the apartheid regime began
in the kitchen of a homeless shelter, where SSEU Local 371 members refused to
serve up South African canned pineapple, and culminated in victory as the City
Council passed DC 37-backed boycott legislation.
DC 37 Executive Director
Victor Gotbaum led the successful campaign for the city pension funds to divest
themselves of the stocks of companies doing business there.
In 1984 and
1985, Gotbaum and then-Associate Director Stanley Hill were arrested with dozens
of members and staff in demonstrations at the South African embassy in Washington
and a site in New York City.
DC 37 Exec. Dir.
Victor Gotbaum testifies at a 1986 hearing at City Hall for a bill to to protect
gay rights. The union was in the forefront of this struggle.
The unions drive for equal rights for all
led to strong support for the womens movement and battles to close pay and
pension gaps between male and female city workers. In 1980, then-Associate Director
Lillian Roberts addressed a Local 1930 reception that kicked off a rally for the
Equal Rights Amendment, and DC 37 prepared pro-ERA fliers for the statewide campaign.
union joined a lawsuit charging that Police Dept. 911 operators, mainly minority
women, got far less pay than their mainly white male counterparts in the Fire
Dept. In the 1991 settlement of one of the nations largest pay discrimination
cases, the Local 1549 members won big financial gains, including pay parity with
the Fire Dept. operators. Lawsuits decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in the late
1980s ended inequities in womens pension contributions and retirement checks.
rights for all is a union issue
Broadening its battles for equality,
DC 37 became one of the first unions in New York City to back equal rights for
people with differing sexual orientations. Gotbaum testified in 1986 for a gay
rights bill in the City Council, and members formed the unions Lesbian and
Gay Issues Committee in 1988 and pursued the organizing efforts that led to the
AFL-CIOs Pride at Work group. In its continuing drive to create a level
playing field for all, the union started its Disability Advisory Committee in
Through DC 37s history, the richness of its membership has
led to a series of key firsts in leadership positions. Stanley Hill took office
in 1987 as the first African American executive director, Local 1113 President
Victor Guadalupe became the unions first Latino officer when he was elected
DC 37 president in 1994, and Lillian Roberts became the first woman and the first
African American woman executive director in 2002.
DC 37 Exec. Dir. Jerry
Wurf, Local 924 Laborer Len Seelig and staffer James Farmer rallied when Martin
Luther King Jr. was jailed in Birmingham in 1963.
Unite and fight
37s calendar is punctuated by celebrations of members African American,
Latino, Caribbean, Irish, Italian, Jewish and Asian heritages, honoring the observation
that the union gains strength from its diversity.
This diverse membership
has been at the center of the nations struggles for equal rights since
37 was founded in 1944 volunteering, marching, boycotting and even going
to jail for justice.