Everyone royalty: AFSCME, municipal workers and urban power in Philadelphia, 1921–1983

Francis Padraig Ryan, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation explores the rise and development of Philadelphia's Municipal Workers Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), District Council 33 in the twentieth century. Tracing the experience of city workers, especially the Street Cleaning Bureau employees who formed the union's nucleus, from the pre-union days of the 1920s to the ascendance of black political power in Philadelphia in the 1980s, this study highlights the enmeshed relationship between the municipal workplace and the municipal political order. The corresponding developments of black proletarianization and the crystallization of more aggressive African-American political strategies in the early twentieth century are analyzed, stressing the independent actions of black workers in forming a workplace organization with multiethnic whites in advancing their own class interests. Since its founding in 1938, Philadelphia's AFSCME organization exemplified interracial unionism in Philadelphia, with black and whites holding officer, delegate and steward positions in the union, and displaying solidarity in confrontations with city management. Despite its traditions of racial inclusiveness, AFSCME District Council 33 also exhibited the rifts and contradictions that characterized much of Philadelphia's race relations during the twentieth century. Later sections of the dissertation chart the rise of a more racialized rhetoric among black city union leaders in the 1950s and 1960s. In this way, this dissertation adds to the debate on interracial unionism in the United States, while addressing broader themes in recent United States urban and political history by placing the actions of city workers within the context of working class engagement in the liberal political system. The dissertation makes use of a wide range of sources, relying heavily upon newspaper articles, departmental and local government reports, union files and correspondences, and extensive oral histories with Philadelphia city workers. Using these sources, this work seeks not only to detail the interactions of the workers' formal organization within the range of political and municipal managers, but in articulating the lived experience of workers, both on the job and in the communities where they lived.

Subject Area

American history|Labor relations|Black history

Recommended Citation

Ryan, Francis Padraig, "Everyone royalty: AFSCME, municipal workers and urban power in Philadelphia, 1921–1983" (2003). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3087460.