Third Installment of Occasional Series on Work, Race, and Union Organizing in Williamsburg, VA

5591-500hThe article that follows is the third installment in an occasional series of articles based on research conducted by SLSA contributing writer, Arish Ali, on the history of modern African American protest in Williamsburg, Virginia. Arish immigrated from Bangladesh to the United States as a child, and has resided in Virginia ever since. He recently graduated from the College of William and Mary, where he cultivated his interests in historical research, filmmaking, and reflecting on social conditions.

When Cookie took employment as an auditor for Colonial Williamsburg, she seemed poised to replicate her parents’ lives of tranquility and stable employment under a paternalistic company. The changing currents of the 1960’s and her own vitality, however, forged a far more radical and unpredictable path ahead of her. In 1967, a fellow CW employee approached Cookie about forming a union to raise collective wages. Cookie was game, and over the course of a year, they met numerous times with a union representative from Memphis, Tennessee and recruited over a thousand members, all the while keeping their union-building activities secret from Colonial Williamsburg. But the clash would be inevitable, not only between management and the workers, but also between Cookie and the people closest to her.

In her efforts to convince her colleagues to unionize, Cookie faced what she described as a widespread “plantation mentality,” the notion “ingrained in … the black people … and the poor whites” who worked for Colonial Williamsburg that “they couldn’t function without” the company. Such individuals “were upset because [the union organizers] were fighting Colonial Williamsburg.” For Cookie, “the worst person … to sign up” for the union was her own mother, a long-time CW employee who “felt that I was crazy, wanting to hurt Colonial Williamsburg.” Cookie’s husband, a CW chef, was “disgusted too because I had decided to unionize.” The disagreement contributed the couple’s subsequent divorce. The dilemma for African Americans between maintaining relative security and having the audacity to ask for more was apparent once again. Cookie paid a heavy toll for choosing the latter option.

Those involved in the union knew that they risked incurring their employer’s wrath, especially in a Right to Work state. Although Colonial Williamsburg did not formally prohibit unions, it strongly discouraged them through what Cookie said were “more actions [than words].” Most union members, in fact, “were a little afraid” and not “willing to step out” until the organizers had accumulated over 500 signatures. Their fears may have been well founded, according to Cookie, because Colonial Williamsburg responded with a series of calculated measures. The management timed the election that determined whether the company would unionize for January, when “the staffing was short … and there were less people there, and more of their people they knew that would vote for them.” In both the November and December prior to the election, the company curried the workers’ goodwill by awarding them a “two weeks’ free paycheck with no taxes, just flat rate what they make … So who was gonna vote to have a union and cut those goodies off?” Unsurprisingly, the pro-union camp lost the election. This victory alone was not enough for Colonial Williamsburg, however. Exactly a year later “they came back and fired” Cookie. The company stated reason for the termination of Cookie’s employment was a reduction in staff, but Cookie believes that “[the executives] were like little kids … they really didn’t know what to do with me … they fired me because of that union.”

Cookie learned to thrive without Colonial Williamsburg, working as a night auditor for another business. As years passed, she enrolled in Christopher Newport University and set out to be an educator, a path that included a stint as a student teacher in Mexico. Working overnight, in addition to attending classes, became untenable, and in 1985 Cookie became an employee of Colonial Williamsburg once again, now as a waitress. By this time, “the union had reorganized, and it was in. They had won the election, and it was a union company.” Given her past experiences with the company and the union, Cookie’s colleagues urged her to join in the union activities. Although she was wary and intent on a teaching career, she relented as the Food and Beverage Workers’ Union consolidated under the leadership of Minor Christian. The union’s primary goal of higher wages had not changed, and the union was now determined to attain it. On December 31, 1989, Cookie recalled, “(CW President) Longsworth was having his Christmas party at the Williamsburg Lodge. And we were marching in front of the building … and [Longsworth] was just laughing; he was like ‘You are a freak. You’re gonna hurt us? You can’t hurt us’ … and he thought we were a joke.” Yet in the following May, the union marched down Duke of Gloucester street—with permission from the city council, which superceded CW’s opposition:

“[T]hey also had people that came in here from DC to march with us, so we had a little over a thousand people here, carrying signs and screaming, and the guests were upset that Colonial Williamsburg would be working people for nothing, for as much as they charge for a ticket to come see it … And we worked the press … and Longsworth realized then that we were not to be played with and so he called everybody back to the table right away to settle this debate.”

Things certainly seemed to be moving fast, but for Cookie, this outcome had been decades in the making. Her willingness to embody the ambitions of the working class had put her through multiple wringers but for Cookie, it was a price worth paying. “[W]e didn’t get a big raise, but we made ourselves known, which was the most important part. And we got the respect of the city and a lot of people.”

In the next installment, Arish will discuss the role that race played within the union and on how it was perceived, and will reflect on African American in contemporary Williamsburg.

The full transcript of Arish Ali’s interview with Ms. Heard is available here.