Sallie Williams, 64, nurse, union leader

August 23, 2002|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Sallie W. Williams, a former state hospital nurse and labor activist who rose through union ranks to become president of her local of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, died in her sleep Aug. 16 at her Pikesville home. She was 64, and had been under treatment for a heart condition.

Mrs. Williams spent more than three decades as a champion of more than 20,000 public employees statewide and thousands more around the country. The weekend before her death, she took part in a union picnic.

She was born Sallie W. Robinson in Mississippi and raised in Pittsburgh, where she graduated from high school in 1956. She married Lougene Williams Sr. in 1959 and followed him to Baltimore, where he had accepted a football scholarship at what is now Morgan State University.

After having two children, she took training to become a licensed practical nurse and in 1966 started working at Rosewood State Hospital, now the Rosewood Center. Her son, Lougene Williams Jr. of Pikesville, said she used to bring some of her young patients home for the holidays.

The young mother found her true calling in 1968, when shop steward Lois Moore signed her up as a member of AFSCME Local 422 at Rosewood. Williams rose through the rank and file, becoming chief shop steward, vice president and finally president of the local.

In 1971, AFSCME Council 67 staff member Gilbert Hanks invited Mrs. Williams to apply for the union's staff intern program. That started her transition from worker to workers' advocate.

Mrs. Williams spent the next 12 years on the road as an international representative, an African-American who often was the only woman dealing with men on labor issues -- and usually white men, said her boss, Glenard Middleton, Council 67's executive director, for whom she was an early mentor.

Her husband -- who died a month ago -- sacrificed his career aspirations so that she could pursue her dreams, their son said. For most of the decade, he and his sister saw their mother two weekends a month, when the union would fly her home.

"My mother couldn't have been on the front lines for all those folks if it hadn't been for my father," the son said.

Mr. Williams said he and his sister, Karen Williams-Boyd of Owings Mills, passed out fliers and manned phone banks for their mother, who became adept at working political campaigns.

Though the union was a big part of their lives, Mrs. Williams and her husband never forgot their roles as parents, said the son, recalling their visits after he transferred to Frostburg State University in Western Maryland.

"When I started playing football at Frostburg, my parents would follow me in their campers to my games," he said. "I'm coming off the bus and the first thing I'd look for was the camper, wondering if they made it."

In 1983, Mrs. Williams came home to Baltimore as Council 67 labor representative and was assigned to the city jails. That was where she became a mentor to Mr. Middleton, a corrections officer active in labor issues.

"When I met her the first time, she didn't take any prisoners. She raised a lot of Cain," Mr. Middleton said. "She was a special kind of person. She was a diamond -- sometimes in the rough -- but a diamond."

In 20 years of working with her, he saw her stand up for women being harassed, discriminated against or treated unfairly, Mr. Middleton said, adding that she ran a tight ship as the union's chief negotiator with the city.

"She believed in perfection, in people being on time. You could never be late or she would read you the riot act," Mr. Middleton said. "But then she'd go in the back room and laugh with you about it."

Mr. Middleton said she made an impression as a sophisticated woman, often wearing 6-inch heels. One of her favorite sayings was, "Try to walk a mile in my shoes," he said, adding, "She would tell management and politicians, `I was here when you came in and I'll be here when you leave.'"

Her son, now a city employee, is an active member of the AFSCME, though at one time he worked with a competing union -- coming into direct conflict with his mother over which group would represent city jail employees.

In February, Mrs. Williams retired after nearly 20 years as Council 67 labor representative.

In her spare time, she liked deep-sea fishing and cruises.

Services were held Wednesday.

In addition to her two children, Mrs. Williams is survived by three sisters, Ola Artis of Fort Meade and Eula Turner and Berlinna Robinson, both of Pittsburgh; a brother, John Robinson of Pittsburgh; and five grandchildren.

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