Oliver Harvey: “Got to take some risks”

Black and white drawing of Black man with glasses in white coat

Janet Beyer

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 6 No. 2, "Sick for Justice: Health Care and Unhealthy Conditions." Find more from that issue here.

At Duke University, workers in the medical center have fought for over twenty years to win a union against overwhelming opposition. The huge hospital-research-medical school complex employs some 10,500 people and is the city of Durham's largest employer. It is impossible to understand the organizing campaign at Duke without knowing something about Oliver Harvey, the slight 5'5" black janitor who kept the fires of unionism smoldering through the long, lonely years of apathy and fear.  

Mr. Harvey, as he is affectionately known to the younger workers at Duke University’s sprawling medical center, grew up on a farm in Franklinton, a tiny North Carolina textile and tobacco town. Oliver Harvey’s father was one of the few black farmers in the area to own his own land, and he lost it in 1933 in a manner that made a lasting impression on his son. “He had tenants and he encouraged them to save up and buy their own farms,’’ said Harvey. “That way nobody could tell you you had to move on, 'cause it was your own. He always tried to help them. 

“Then, right at harvest time, they stole off in the middle of the night with his cotton and tobacco, and that was the last we saw of them. They sold the crop and run off. He came up short with the bank and lost his land. He would be as fair as he could to people, and then be surprised when they weren’t fair to him. That’s what carried him down.” 

Unwilling to settle for sharecropping himself, Harvey came to Durham looking for work. After going through a number of temporary menial jobs, he considered himself lucky to land a “real job” at the American Tobacco Company in 1936. The tobacco workers union was mounting a successful organizing drive there at the time — on a segregated basis. One local for whites, one local for blacks. “When they tried to organize me, I told them I thought a union would be very instrumental to the people working there,” said Harvey. (An utter pragmatist, he uses the word “instrumental” frequently.) “But as far as the separate locals went, I said, ‘I don’t know anything about unions, but I don’t like that. We’re always Jim Crowed outside the union, so why should we have to join different organizations inside it?’ ‘That’s just the way it is,’ they said. I said, The word “union” means together.’ They said integration was against the rules of the international, and that it would be detrimental to their organizing efforts. I said I was sorry, but I couldn’t join their union. 

“I got my hatred for segregation from my father,” explained Harvey. “He was raised up in the house of a white couple, two liberal lawyers. He learned to always speak up for himself.” 

Harvey inherited the habit, which proved to be an occasional source of difficulty. After refusing to join the union, his boss called him into the office and asked him where he was from. “He was surprised when I said ‘North Carolina,’” recalled Harvey. “He said, ‘But you’ve got Northern ideas. Black people are free up there.’ I said, ‘These aren’t Northern ideas. I been up there and there’s racism there, too. It’s just not as wide-open, as plain, as it is here and in the states around.’” Not surprisingly, Harvey was the victim of a one-person “layoff” about two weeks later. 

He then went to work as an orderly at Watts Hospital in Durham. High turnover and its correlate, lack of job security, have always plagued unorganized hospital workers, and Watts was no exception. “Any black who spoke out there, who wouldn’t take their driving, was in danger of losing his job. Any time you talked back to a white, you were ‘sassing.’ Boy, I hated that word. It really did something to me. I asked them, “Why can’t one adult defend himself in front of another?’ ” 

Although Harvey’s experience at American Tobacco had not made him any less outspoken, it had made him more cunning. “The only thing that saved my job was blackmail,” he said. "I always had something on everybody that ever tried to fire me. Helping themselves to the goodies in the medicine cabinet was a big thing there. Doctors and nurses drug-abusing saved my job I don’t know how many times. Or the charge nurse would send a student nurse into the medicine cabinet, which was against the law. Those student nurses would give people the wrong medicines all the time. 

“I had to find a way to speak out on the job,” said Harvey. “You can’t work scared, cause you can’t produce when you work in fear.” 

He also created quite a stir when he went to work for the unionized Kruegur Bottling Company in 1943. Kruegur, Durham’s highest paying industrial employer, was forced to hire blacks during the wartime manpower shortage. But they were shunted into a separate local and paid substantially less than whites working on the same, machines. Harvey convinced the blacks to stop paying union dues. “The [union’s] area director came in and things got pretty hot between us,” he recalled. “Finally he gave in and disbanded the black local and put us all in together. That was the first integrated local I ever heard of around here. 

“But that was just problem Number One,” he said. “Our pay scales were still segregated.” So Harvey led the blacks out on a successful wildcat strike well before the union’s contract expired. 

“What happened next really surprised me,” he said. “Forty-four of the forty-five whites in the plant came running out after us. It really frightened me, because there were some very racist people there. I said to the other pickets, ‘Look out people, now we got to fight like the devil!’ I was sure those people had come out to attack us, but they had come out to join us. All of them didn’t agree with the way we were being treated; I had never suspected that. I learned you should never close the door on people, always give them a chance to do the right thing.” 

A moment of comic relief came when Harvey called Kruegur’s president in Newark, New Jersey. “Are you colored or white?” asked the man’s secretary before allowing that her boss “might” return his call. That night Harvey answered his phone at home to hear the industrialist ask in a tentative tone whether he might speak with “Mr. Harvey.” 

“First time I ever heard a white man call me ‘Mister,’ ” he chuckled. 

Having scaled such giddy heights of social equality, Harvey was ill-prepared for the gothic gloom of Duke University. After trying unsuccessfully to run his own restaurant, he went to work at Duke as a janitor in 1951 at the age of forty-two. “We were supposed to call all the students ‘Mister’ and ‘Miss’ in those days,” he said. “The president of the fraternity where I worked at the time was from a wealthy family. One day he said, ‘Good morning’ in a friendly way, so I said, ‘Good morning, Ed.’ He just stared at me. The maids all said I would get in trouble if he told our supervisor. I couldn’t believe he could be that concerned; he was a student and I was at least twice his age. But sure enough, when he got back from class, he said he’d like to have a talk with me. ‘I thought you were supposed to call us ‘Mister,’ he said. ‘Why did you call me ‘Ed’ this morning?’ 

“I said, ‘Why do you ask me that, Ed? Does it really bother you?’ He got all embarrassed, so I kept on. ‘If you don’t like it, tell me,’ I said. 

“‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘It’s stupid. Tell all the maids to start calling us by our first names, too.’ ” 

Hospital Labor Law

The American health care industry, North and South, pursues a labor relations policy that parallels that of the Southern textile industry. “The hospital industry is as vicious and anti-union as they come,” said Daniel H. Pollitt, Kenan Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina who has served as special counsel to the House Subcommittee on Labor-Management Relations in Washington. “Hospital boards tend to be filled by the wives of wealthy industrialists who don't want unions in their own plants, so they're not going to let one into the local hospital at any cost." 

Until 1974, all workers in private, non-profit hospitals like Duke — some 1.5 million people — were denied the protections of the National Labor Relations Act. This meant they could be legally fired or harassed simply for supporting a union, and had no legal right to vote for or against union representation. 

Hospital workers' greatest problem seems to be lack of job security. "If those people get a cold they get fired so their germs won't spread," said Poll itt. "Paying Blue Cross and other fringe benefits for them would cost too much; it's much easier to get rid of them." 

By August, 1974, even Rep. John Ashbrook (R-Ohio), leader of the ideological conservatives in Congress and a consistent foe of labor law reform, supported the bill bringing these workers under the Act's protection. Ashbrook went to Johns Hopkins University Medical Center for an annual check-up and was appalled by conditions for workers and patients alike. Finding a turnover rate close to 1,000 percent and "employees who didn't even know where to empty the bedpans," he concluded that something had to be done. The amendments, supported by unlikely allies like Sen. Robert Taft, Jr. (R-Ohio), passed overwhelmingly. 

Duke’s insistence on antiquated forms of address from its employees was symbolic of the university’s paternalistic, almost feudal approach to labor relations. A seasoned shop steward by this time, Harvey was quick to see that a different set of power relationships existed there than in private industry in Durham, which is one of the most heavily organized cities in the South. “Working in a factory,” he said, “you can strike and stop management’s money from coming in. A university is different. It doesn’t produce a product you can hold in your hands. It can run a long time without its workers.” 

Duke was not above taking advantage of the situation. “In addition to low wages,” recalled Harvey, “we had hardly any fringe benefits at all. No holidays, no sick leave. You got sick, you starved, cause you only got paid for the days you worked, no matter what. 

“I realized then that it would be at least fifteen years before workers there were ready for a union. They were too scared and ignorant. There’s a season for things. Like when the government and industry needed people to work in defense plants in World War II, they had to let a lot of unions in. But it wasn’t the right season at Duke yet. 

“I hated working there, the way they treated you, but I hung on for all those years when nothing was happening because I wanted to learn. I talked to students and faculty whenever I could. They loaned me books. That’s how I got my college education.” (One of his favorite books is C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow, and one of his favorite subjects, the problems and possibilities inherent in forging alliances between black and white activists.) ‘‘I taught the students a lot, too,” he said. ‘‘They were surprised when I told them that civil rights organizations like the local NAACP and the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs (DCNA) wouldn’t help hospital workers at Duke, because they were run by black businessmen from Mechanics and Farmers Bank and the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company who treated their own black employees just as badly.” 

But the solace of philosophy was not the only thing that kept Harvey going during the 1950s and early ’60s. He circulated petitions every few years demanding better conditions in the medical center and on the campus. ‘‘There weren’t but nine people would sign the first one in 1952,” he said. ‘‘They were sure it would cost them their jobs. I said, ‘We’ve got to take some risks if we’re ever going to do anything. Life is a risk. Don’t just worry about your own job, worry about what that job will be like for your children. Doing something for somebody else is the only way to better your own conditions in the long run.’” 

The number willing to sign the petitions increased every time they were circulated, but Harvey eventually had to stop. ‘‘The personnel office was giving the people who signed them secret wage increases and promotions to keep them quiet in the future. They offered me pretty much whatever I wanted to stop raising sin, but I didn’t want anything they had to offer. All these years Duke has always tried to divide people against themselves. They created separate pay classifications for the same jobs, like Janitor I, Janitor II, and Janitor III. That’s a lot of crap. There’s no I, II, and III. If you’re a janitor, you’re a janitor, that’s all. The biggest fool in town can come in and clean up. 

“In the hospital,” he continued, “all nurse’s aides were white and all nurse’s maids were black. They did the same work, but nurse’s aides were much better paid. They’d try to pit us against the white workers. When the union came around, they’d tell the whites, ‘That’s an all-black organization.’ And they’d tell us, ‘You don’t need a union; we’ll give you a little raise, more than your co-worker next to you is getting. But don’t tell him or he’ll want one, too.’” 

Working conditions in the health care industry are among the worst in our economy. “One of the hardest things about hospital work,” says union organizer Kim Pittman, “is that you’re dealing with people, not products. It beats the hell out of your emotions. One day you’re feeding some little kid, getting involved with him, and the next day they’ve got you carrying his body out. Most hospital workers aren’t sophisticated enough to be clinical and detached like doctors. And it’s just a rotten job at a more basic level; you’re cleaning up people’s wastes and their blood all the time.” 

Another problem, says Pittman, who is currently organizing workers at Duke University Medical Center for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), is that “doctors are like gods in the medical hierarchy. They’ll go to your supervisor and tell him they didn’t like the way you said hello that day; you can catch hell for a little thing like that. And they’ve got too much ego to ever admit they could make a mistake, so the worker at the bottom of the pecking order often gets blamed when things go wrong.” 

Two other hospital union officials, who have also organized in the textile and automobile industries, agreed that, in the words of one, “Of all the management types I’ve ever run up against, doctors are by far the worst in terms of sheer arrogance.” The exasperated administrator of a United Mine Workers clinic in Appalachia was even more categorical. “Before you can even begin to understand the health care industry,” he once told me, “you have to grasp one basic fact: doctors are bastards, absolutely and without qualification. The hell with national health insurance, the biggest problem in American health care today is the physician ego!” 

It must also be said, however, that hospital administrators, in their frustration with physicians whom they cannot question too openly, often take their wrath out on innocent employees. 

Health care institutions use their employees’ guilt to fight unions. “Hospitals,” says Pittman, “try to brainwash their employees into believing there’s an inevitable conflict between bettering their own conditions and providing good care to their patients. But, realistically, well-respected workers with good morale give the best care.” 

Pittman says Duke’s “priorities,” like those of most hospitals, “are screwed up. Every time some big-time medical center up North gets a new million-dollar piece of equipment, they’ve got to have one just like it. But they scream ‘irresponsible’ every time their workers ask for higher wages.” 

Duke’s image in Durham also makes it tough to organize, he says. “The guy who works at Liggett & Myers makes more than many of these health care professionals here, but they feel they have more prestige in the community because they work at Duke.” 

Hospital organizing took years to come to a head at Duke. While he spent most of his time in the 1960s explaining unions to maids, janitors, food service workers, and “patient care attendants” in the medical center, Harvey also became deeply involved in the civil rights movement. When the Greensboro lunch-counter sit-ins spread to Durham in 1960, some North Carolina College (now NC Central University) students asked Harvey, then past fifty, to join them in a foray against Rose’s downtown department store. “I didn’t say yes or no,” he recalled, “because I could see the police waiting for us. But then I said to myself, These students are afraid, too, but there they go.’ So I went in with them. We were snatched away from the counter and arrested as soon as we sat down. 

“I really learned a lot about organizing in the civil rights movement,” he said. “I went down to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s hotel room when he came to Durham to ask his advice about Duke. I told him I was like Mrs. [Rosa] Parks on the bus in Montgomery, that I needed an educated person like him to be my leader. He said, ‘Wait a minute, now. People like me can help you, but we can’t organize Duke for you. The only ones who can do that are the people who work there. I can help you write up a set of demands, but only with the inside information on working conditions you provide me with. A lawyer can give you legal advice, but only after you document the day-to-day facts for him and tell him what you want to change.’ 

“Dr. King told me I was on the right track, working with unions, and said he was going to move on to economics himself after he was done with civil rights. He said I was ahead of him in what I was doing, that he had a lot of catching up to do. He gave me great encouragement. I said to myself, ‘The waiting season is over. It’s time to join up with some expertise and start a union.’ ” 

Where once he sought out liberal arts students for philosophical discussions of social inequities, Harvey now began looking for those with technical knowledge useful in organizing. A friend who worked as a janitor in Duke’s Law School building introduced him to law students who researched labor law for him and wrote most of his leaflets, letters, and demands. He called a mass meeting in early 1965 to form the Duke University Employees Benevolent Society, a transitional organization to give skeptical workers some exposure to collective action while Harvey and his law students searched for an international union to provide them with strike funds and expertise in organizing and bargaining. After rejecting several unions for what he considered their racism, Harvey convinced AFSCME, one of the few internationals willing to work with civil rights activists in the mid-’60s, to commit themselves to an organizing campaign at Duke in September of 1965. 

“Duke tried hard to get rid of me from that time on,” he said. “Most people get sleepy working on the third shift. They knew I was tired from running around organizing all day, and hoped they could catch me dozing and fire me. But I couldn’t have slept if I wanted to; I had too many things on my mind. I got ulcers for the first time then. They drove me, stayed in close behind me all the time. I had to cross every t and dot every /, or I would have been gone. It was rough. God was the only thing that kept me together through those days.” 

After a spontaneous two-day walkout in the medical center proved partially successful, a full-fledged strike was planned in 1968, for union recognition and a minimum starting wage of $1.60 an hour. “We done rocked the boat,” Harvey said. “Now let’s stop it.” Originally planned for May, the strike was moved up to the end of the first week in April when word of it leaked out and pro-union leaders became concerned that “people might peak too soon.” Their strategy committee was meeting that Thursday to work out last minute details when they got word that Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis. “This is it,” said Harvey. “How much more do they think we can take?” 

“We had in mind to invade the [university] president’s house and take it over,” he said. “The student government didn’t want to, because they were afraid they’d get teargassed. But Dr. King’s death changed their minds.” Duke students kept an all-night vigil the Friday after the assassination. “I was in a new world the next day when I saw thousands of people protesting on the quadrangle,” said Harvey. “It looked like one of Billy Graham’s crusades. I’d never seen anything like it before, and I probably never will again.” 

But sympathetic students and faculty faltered in their commitment as the strike wore on. “I spoke to a packed auditorium,” remembered Harvey, “and said, ‘You said you wanted to help us, and we told you it would be rough. If it’s too tough for you, we’ll have to do it ourselves.’ That really stirred them up, and I kept going. It was raining hard outside and some of them were complaining about how wet they got coming to the meeting. I told them, ‘We were born outside in the rain. If it’s too wet for you, go home and just get involved when the sun is shining.’ ” 

Students and faculty contributed over $10,000 during the thirteen-day strike, says Harvey, with another $7,000 coming from the larger Durham community. But as the strike reached its tenth day, he could feel his own people wavering. “They were getting ready to go back to work,” he said, “and I had almost given up. I knew we’d have to compromise more than we wanted to. But I kept up a bold front. The Duke administration asked me, ‘How long can your people survive?’ I said, ‘You think you can starve us to death? Man, we been hungry 300 years.’ 

“But I knew I couldn’t bluff much longer. They offered us an ‘Employees Council’ instead of a union. I knew it would be a company outfit, but I thought we could get Duke to hang themselves again and put us in a real union, which is just what happened. I told the people, ‘Better we use this stick than none at all.’ ” 

A white organizer tried to convince Harvey to hold out for genuine union recognition. “‘You don’t know black people like I do,’ I told him. ‘These people are going back and there’s nothing we can do about it.’ He said we could use the students to bring pressure on the trustees. ‘You must be kidding,’ I said. These students want to graduate; they can’t stay here forever.’ He told me I should stay out as an example to other workers. I said, ‘It’s come time for me to look after just one group of people at Duke University. That’s my wife and her husband.’ ” 

Harvey’s life has been marked by a constant tension between his drive to help working people and his need to do what he has had to do to survive. Some began to question his leadership after the strike. Internal union politics were rent with recrimination and factionalism. Embittered, he did something in the early 1970s that he had sworn to himself he would never do. 

He took a supervisor’s job. 

“Most people aren’t very grateful for what you do for them,” he said. “I began to wonder whether I should make so many sacrifices and work so hard for nothing in return. People don’t miss you ’til you die or move away; Martin Luther King’s death proved that. I wasn’t about to die to suit them, so I moved on out of the union.” 

But Harvey’s deep regret over leaving the union is apparent when he speaks. Shortly after Duke’s campus workers won union recognition in a landslide NLRB election in 1972, he reached retirement age and began devoting most of his time to organizing without pay in the medical center. He expended incredible energy trying to soften the intense factionalism which doomed the union to a surprisingly narrow defeat in a 1976 representation election in the hospital. After considerable persuasion by the union’s rank-and-file organizing committee, he consented in early 1978 to go to work for AFSCME as a full-time paid organizer in the medical center. 

He asked to be taken off the payroll after a month’s efforts convinced him that the international’s highly centralized organizing department in Washington, DC, was insensitive to the particularities of the local situation at Duke. He continues to work with the union in organizing the hospital, but feels his unpaid status leaves him freer to function as a loyal critic of their strategic mistakes. “The workers in the medical center need a union worse than anything,” he says, “but I’ve learned that you can’t just sit back and expect your international to do all the work and make all the decisions for you. An international is only as good and as responsive as the local people make it be.” 

As Harvey approaches the eighth decade of his life, he continues working and fighting for what he believed in as a young man in his twenties, combining the wisdom and experience of age with the outrage and idealism of youth.