It was spring 1985, and tensions were high at the East Bay Municipal Utilities District.
Around that time, a group of black employees sued the water district for discrimination over allegations that they were being passed over for promotions because of their race. Suddenly out of nowhere, management decided to make a policy change to allegedly save money. They required plumbers to report to job sites with their personal vehicles instead of work trucks.
This infuriated the members of AFSCME Local 444—which represented plumbers, wastewater treatment operators and other workers—who already felt undervalued by East Bay MUD at the time. As many will remember, Local 444 made the bold decision to go on strike.
The strike lasted for 31 days, and sacrifices were made by all the members, especially those who weren’t the plumbers who had the most at stake. But once it was over, the members stood strong and got the policy change reversed.
More importantly, the members are still reaping the benefits today.
On this Labor Day, we talk to Gary Goins, the oldest Local 444 member and one of the last remaining workers who was around during the East Bay MUD strike. It’s a lesson in what it takes to fight for dignity as working people. Union members withholding their labor through a strike is also a one of the Union’s strongest weapons. It’s one that isn’t brandished often, but it’s still as powerful today as it was then.
Q: What was it like to be a part of the 1985 East Bay MUD strike?
A: When I started at East Bay MUD, I started off as a janitor. I did that for about three years before I started doing what I’m doing now, which is a wastewater treatment plant operator. When I first started, I looked up to the older guys who were in their 60s. I had nothing but respect for them because they had knowledge and I didn’t. I treated them nice and I took care of things for them every now and then so I could get some of that knowledge.
A lot of those guys came to the water district after the war. They were more independent during those days. They didn’t take no mess. When they were serious about something, they were serious—and they weren’t getting the same promotion opportunities as other workers. So, even before the strike, the general feeling in the air was that something was about to happen.
The first two weeks of the strike weren’t that bad. But once those paychecks and health benefits stopped coming in, it got serious for a lot of people. I started paying my bills in advance, you know, because I had a wife and two kids.
A few of us would be at different spots around the plant with our picket signs around the clock to hit all the shifts. To pass the time by, we might be listening to some music or bringing our families out there.
You definitely got to know the people you work with, and you got to know who you were going into battle with. The one thing you didn’t do was cross that picket line.
Q: Why did you participate in the strike?
A: I did the strike because, from the time I was a little boy, union values were instilled in me. My mom would always say, “If it wasn’t for unions, we would be working for pennies on the day.” She was a restaurant worker and my dad was a construction worker with no overtime or benefits—nothing. Prior to unions, they would be working 12 to 14 hours a day.
When I was about 5 or 6 years old growing up in Ohio, I can remember riding around in the cars with the bullhorns on them promoting the people running for union office.
So when it came to the strike, I knew what it meant to fight for your job. Those plumber members who called for the strike have always been the majority of the members in Local 444. Their numbers were in the hundreds, while there were only about 60 or so wastewater treatment plant operators at the time.
Their grievance didn’t really have anything to do with us (operators), but you’re in a union. And when you’re in a union, you follow the majority. And the majority voted to go on strike, so we did.
After all these years, here’s what I know: Local 444 has fought to make sure that the water district would hire a more people. Local 444 has fought for better pay for all our members. Do you think your job is just going to give you a raise? Someone has to fight for it. And that’s what we did.
Q: What would you say about the importance of unions to today’s young people who might not have grew up in a union household or who don’t quite have the understanding about why you all went on strike?
A: What I can tell young people is the reason you’ve got those benefits is because of unions. So if it’s not important enough for you to stand up for the thing (unions) that helped get you the decent wage you’re making now, the benefits you got, the healthcare, a good working environment, people not screwing with you because of what color you are or what religion you are, then my question to you is: What is important?
Unions have gotten a bad rap for many years because, yeah, you may have some guys in there who are just in it for money. But unions, as a whole, are good. We’re all as one.
Q: When people get jobs nowadays, a lot of them are just trying to make it, especially when you’re living in the Bay Area. So what would you say to the workers who are just trying to provide for themselves and their families and might not be interested in going on a strike?
A: That’s the million-dollar question, right?
Here’s what I would say: If you don’t have anybody who has your back, that money could be here today and gone tomorrow. If you’re not covered by a union, you might not be able to keep those benefits. When you get old like me, you might need healthcare. Got a family? You gotta think about your family.
For me, it’s always been about that security. I know I can get up in the morning. I can have breakfast or dinner with my family. And when I get finished with this job, I’m going to have a retirement.
Having the ability to strike means I can fight to maintain that security. That’s how I know I’ll have dignity when I finally retire.