Writing AFSCME’S Philadelphia Story

In this blog entry, Francis Ryan, author of AFSCME’S Philadelphia Story writes about his interest in telling this history of the unions in Philadelphia.

My interest in AFSCME goes back to a family connection, my grandfather Thomas McAvoy having been an ignition mechanic for the city’s Department of Public Property from 1949 to 1974. He worked on police cars and fire engines down at the main garage down at 1117 Reed Street in South Philadelphia, which was right across the street from the infamous, municipally-run Moyamensing Prison.  My grandfather, a white man from the city’s working class Kensington section, was a racial progressive who fought for full equality for African American workers in the places where he worked, at a time when such a stance was very unpopular among many working class whites, even here in Philadelphia. From what my family told me, it was his involvement with AFSCME that really helped to shape this vision of the kind of city he wanted to live in. He passed away in 1985, and although I never really got a chance to talk to him about this history, I wanted to find it on my own.

            When I first started, I was hopeful I would come across a store of primary documents that would allow me to write a full account of AFSCME’s history in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia City Archives seemed a natural place to start, since I thought they would likely hold the records of contract negotiations, along with the papers of city managers. Also, I hoped that the union would have saved many years worth of documents, newspapers and grievance forms that would be a window into its internal workings. What I found was discouraging. The City Archives had almost nothing related to either collective bargaining with the union, or many other reports depicting the ways that the municipal work bureaus operated. The union also had no archives: even worse, I was informed that the union at one time had “boxes and boxes” of material related to its early history—but that these were thrown out!

            There was a time when I didn’t think that I would be able to investigate AFSCME’s history because so few documents remained. However, I realized that other options remained. During some initial discussions about my planned project with some neighbors who worked for the city, I realized that the memories of municipal workers were another way to find out about the recent past. If I organized an oral history project, I could gain insight into what it meant to work for the City of Philadelphia in the post-war period, as well as get at the human dimension into what belonging to AFSCME meant for many workers. I made some phone calls to AFSCME DC 33 officers, and found out that the union had a retiree organization, DC 33’s Golden Age Club, which had monthly meetings at the union headquarters at 31st and Walnut Streets. When I spoke to the officers of the club about my history project, they invited me down to introduce me to the members and to see if they could help.  I think this oral history project was the most important and rewarding aspect of writing the union’s history. It allowed me to understand the wide-range of jobs city workers had—from sanitation truck drivers, school crossing guards, recreation department laborers, stenographers, community nurses and sewage treatment center employees who worked in the “grit chamber”—to name but a few.

            Sometimes I met members of the Golden Age Club at union headquarters, but most often I was invited out to their homes, where we had a chance to talk informally about what working for the City of Philadelphia meant to them, and the ways that the union functioned for them on the job.  Men and women also told me about their families and often, their stories of migrating from the south in the 1940s and 1950s. I realized how much of Philadelphia’s history is connected to the south, and how much it is a city of migrants.

These interviews also took me into every section and neighborhood of Philadelphia; as someone who was born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia, these contacts were sometimes the first time I had ever been to many of these neighborhoods: Eastwick, Mantua, the narrow streets of the city once known as Swampoodle, as well as parts of South Philadelphia and Roxborough—it made me realize how Philadelphia still very much remains a divided city. It is my hope that just as the writing of this book allowed me to cross over some of these neighborhood, spatial divisions, now that it is published and being read, the conversations will continue, and will allow even more connections between people. Just as I wanted to find the story of my grandfather the city mechanic, I think there are many people out there whose parents, grandparents or great-grandparents worked for the city as well, and may want to know how their hard work connects to a bigger history of Philadelphia.

AFSCME’S Philadelphia Story is now avialable from Temple University Press.  Click HERE to watch a video with Francis Ryan.

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