Mr. George “Geo” T. Johnson
Our spotlight for the month of April, 2010 is Mr. George “Geo” T. Johnson, Executive Director of DC’s local union, District Council 20 AFSCME. AFSCME [the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees] is the largest labor union in the United States, and it continuously battles for social and economic justice in the workplace. We will talk with him about his work at AFSCME as well as his life’s journey.
Destiny – Pride: Good morning, Mr. Johnson. Destiny – Pride, Incorporated is honored to have you as its Spotlight of the Month for the Month of April 2010. First, please give us a brief background of your beginnings – your birthplace, family structure, and what in your upbringing has helped to shape you into the person you are today?
Mr. Johnson: Well good morning, Mr. Mayfield. It’s first of all an honor to be participating in your program, and it’s more of an honor to be chosen as one of the individuals to be spotlighted in this program. I just want to put it in perspective in what shaped me. You asked what shaped my life and helped me become the way I am today. Originally, I came up in Barry Farms. I lived there ‘til 1955 (I think it was) and then from there up to Knox Terrace; so I had my share of “projects” for a minute. From there, we moved on Alabama Avenue. Just being in those settings taught you a couple of things – but basically, it taught you survival. I would say that being a brother with sisters made me more of a “survivor” because I had the instinct of having to watch out for my sisters.
In growing up, you make choices. You could be that individual who grew up to be a scholar, and do all the right things in life and go down the journey where people patted you on the back and you did great things, or you could take the journey that lead to infractions with the law. Well, some of my heroes were those who had infractions with the law, okay? I think that that helped to begin to shape which way I was going to go. Some of the folks that I really looked up to were folks who were streetwise and knew how to get out and make a dollar. Even today, I still admire some of them; some of them could have been doctors and lawyers. They had great talents for doing things; but they just were on the other side of the law. When you get on the wrong side of the law, you have a tendency to try to stay below the radar – which doesn’t really work because eventually the law is going to catch up with you. What happened was that earlier on in my small stints in having those infractions, the law caught up with me. It began to really open my eyes, and it wasn’t just about the money aspect, because in the early 60’s there was so much money to be made in the District of Columbia. The thrill of it was the “thrill.” It was a thrill to me to be making the money. A young boy, sixteen, seventeen years old, making the type of money I was making. It was just the thrill of it. But then, the flip side to that was that that money was being used to do some other things, like helping other folks. That was the other joy I got out of it. But the down part was it was illegal. So I began to think, what do you do? Do you stay on the wrong side of the fence? And something said, “this isn’t really going to be cut out for what you want to do because the consequences outweigh what you were doing.”
So I began to look at things like, “how could I better my education”? I hooked up with what at that time was called the Department of Sanitation. This was in the 70’s, right after Dr. King had been assassinated. I had been really pro “employee” and pro “social change.” As a matter of fact, I met you [Rufus Mayfield] earlier during those days. You were running Pride, with Marion, at that time, and was doing just wonderful programs – things that a black man had not even thought about doing. I still was “peeping out of the corner of my eyes” at other things, but you were doing very positive things in the community. So, I began to delve into the politics of sanitation. Sanitation workers were really being mistreated. We were up for contract negotiations. Right on the edge of Dr. King’s assassination, it had gotten to a point. Things like what they were fighting for down in Tennessee were still credible, even in the District of Columbia. Folks had not been treated fairly, because at that time there was a white regime that ran the Department of Sanitation. We were still in that mindset: “Just get out there and do the work”; “do as I say,” and that was the bottom line. At that time, we were fighting for things. Those folks were not as bad as in Memphis, but we wanted things like fair wages; we wanted to have rain gear – just things that equated to us to the fact that we were also “men.” One of the big sticking points that came out of this was Dr. King’s holiday. The city was so far apart. Herb Tucker [then Director of the Department of Sanitation] and others were the boys at the top then. I never looked back after that because that gave me the catalyst as to what I would in life become. It opened doors for me to go to school and really engross myself in what I’m doing today.
Destiny – Pride: So is it my understanding that when you were in the Department of Sanitation you were “officially” in the union, or were you doing things yourself as an advocate for the union?
Mr. Johnson: I was a union member and I was a steward and a local union activist.
Destiny – Pride: Tell us something about your parents.
Mr. Johnson: I’m the youngest of Idolene and Tommy Johnson – George T. Johnson, Sr. Both of my parents are deceased. My father passed away the day that Barak Obama became President of the United States of America. Pops passed when he was 87 years of age. He was a “self-made” man. He came out of Charlotte, North Carolina, with a limited education, and he rose to be the Chief of Protocol for the IMF [International Monetary Fund; he subsequently worked at the World Bank]. You get a man’s name, but at the same time, you also get all his qualities, and it was because of my father and my mother that I didn’t become a full-fledge “gangster.” Every time I got locked up or had those infractions with the law, it took a piece of them away. But my mom once told me she had had a dream that she saw me in a suit with a briefcase. Before she passed, some of that had become a reality. But when dad died, I was at the top of my game. So it just worked out well for both of them.
Destiny – Pride: People sometimes refer to you as “Geo” Johnson. What is the story behind that name?
Mr. Johnson: They just began to start cutting it short and it just stuck with me. They just dropped “George” and just started saying “Geo,” and believe it or not, that is more official now because that’s the signature on everything else that’s signed, and it’s more recognizable than “George,” actually. People now refer to me as “Geo T. Johnson.”
Destiny – Pride: Who are some of the individuals who have had the greatest impact upon you?
Mr. Johnson: My dad; William Lucy; some of my partners, like Charles Grier – they called him “Box.”
Destiny – Pride: Just tell us a little about them. Who is William Lucy?
Mr. Johnson: William Lucy is the International Secretary of AFSCME. I met him in 1974. He’s probably one of the most distinguished labor leaders in this country. He’s not only the international Secretary/Treasurer of AFSCME, but he’s also the President of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. He sits on the Board of the AFL-CIO [the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations], and so many other countless things throughout the United States and abroad. He was really involved in apartheid before a lot of us here knew what apartheid was and could even talk about what apartheid was.
Charles Grier has been a lifelong friend of mine and was one of my cohorts when I was growing up. He was a person that really showed me a lot of the ropes. He’s gotten older now, like a lot of us have, and he’s calmed down. But he was just one of those street people who knew how to carry himself. One of them who has not been with us for many years is Lenwood Gray. These boys were boys who “carried it” the right way when I was growing up.
Destiny – Pride: Although many of us hear the words “local unions,” “labor unions,” “District Councils,” “AFL-CIO,” “AFSCME,” and the like, there are those who really don’t know what they are or understand the role they play in society. Please briefly explain this to our visitors.
Mr. Johnson: Well, people don’t understand that unions actually built this country. It was a long time before – especially black folks – were able to even get into unions, and the AFL-CIO was not the “AFL-CIO”; they were two separate entities. It was a long time ago when you could talk about people like the sleeping porters [Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters], under A. Philip Randolph, and those types of groups that had to fight to even organize. When you talk about people like the teachers, we see this so readily now in the papers everyday, in every aspect of any job that had masses of people.
Bosses are the greatest organizers for unions. If bosses treated employees fairly, there wouldn’t be unions. We’re the largest union in the United States – we have 1.6 million members. But then, that’s just a small fraction of the almost 18 million that belong to the AFL-CIO. So everywhere that a working person should be, in any group there should be some form of a union. They’re the ones from the railroad; and years ago they were the textile workers – you name it – the cigar rollers, the canned goods makers, the car workers – you name it, those were the folks that put all their efforts together collectively to make this country work. They were the ones who were made the scourges of this society when the “fat cats” always wanted to take a shot at somebody about who was making too much money or “we need to cut back on them.” When it came to the great folks like the sweatshops up in New York; when they had the Triangle fires up there; when they had all those people who got caught up in those buildings.
As for the labor laws that exist today, people don’t remember but people used to have to work a 12-hour work day. There were no Saturdays and Sundays off. There were no holidays. “Unions” accomplished that. Now we’ve gotten into a society where we have to work eight hours a day, or we can work 10 hours a day. No! We’re going back to a society that was there a hundred years ago because we believe that the more we can get out of a person, the better off we are. But, if you go to other countries like England, Britain, Yugoslavia, a lot of these countries have strong unions. Africa has strong – I mean real strong – unions. The United States is – every day – chipping away at the fabric of the unions in the United States.
Destiny – Pride: Just to follow up on your statement about “chipping away,” is it the “outsourcing” of a lot of the manufacturing jobs to individual countries like China, and the likes, cheap labor, and the economy, that has impacted upon – and almost crippled in some instances – the union?
Mr. Johnson: Of course! You remember GE, Philco, we don’t have them any more. When I was growing up, you could get a pair of sneakers for $1.98. Where can you go get a pair of sneakers in the United States today for $1.98? Nowhere! We’re the biggest consumers in the world. That’s because all of our products are imported. We export nothing from the United States anymore because the fat cats have so many loopholes, so many offshore tax shelters, that it’s easier to send them to Thailand, China. Wal-Mart is famous for that. Wal-Mart is famous for getting kids who work for pennies a day. That’s why the United States will be its worst enemy one day. Like I said, when we walk around and we think about the shoes . . . we make nothing in this country anymore. Look at the car industry, how it has failed. To have a Ford; to have a GM, all these cars were the greatest cars in the world when I was coming up. Nowadays, you can go down to Mexico to get a car, because that’s were all the plants are. Plants are everywhere but in the United States. We’re going to Detroit in May. Detroit was booming in the 50’s; in the 40’s; in the 60’s. Now look at it. It’s a ghost town. That’s because they try to blame all of the labor costs on unions. But then when they saw that they could do it cheaper, they hooked up with “Toyotas” and everybody else.
In labor, we don’t drive any foreign cars. All my things are union made because eventually, if we keep outsourcing, we’re going to look up one day. Thank God we have a black President today because pretty soon we’re not going to have anybody that we even understand in the White House!
Although not mentioned during the conversation, Mr. Johnson has a soft spot in his heart for the welfare of young people and he, with District Council 20, has collaborated on a number of ventures to help them build positive self-esteem and self-confidence. Here, he collaborates with Destiny – Pride, Inc. in awarding 40 students from Martin Luther King Elementary School (Dr. Valoria Baylor, Principal) who successfully passed the DC Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS) Test.
Destiny – Pride: You are very passionate about social justice. From where did that passion originate?
Mr. Johnson: I think I just saw people being treated unfairly so much in our lifetime, and I see it even more so today. There is so much of an inequity, especially among people of color. I’ve watched it all the way around the world. I look at how in Africa, here in the United States, it still goes on very heavily. It makes you want to get up and fight when people fight against the healthcare bill, where we are only 13 percent of the population here in the United States, but people would make you think that we’re the ones using up all these government programs. It’s untrue! But everybody should have healthcare, because everybody gets sick. And the people who are fighting against it are people who got it. That was the reason that I said, when I was out there in the streets doing what I did, it was to make sure everybody got a little piece of something. So I guess that’s where I began to see the inequities.
DC hasn’t always been a pillar of “fairness”. You remember when Anacostia used to be all white. My sister was one of the first to integrate Anacostia High School. So it hasn’t always been a bastion of equalization in the District. Years ago, they tell me, right here on U Street there were certain movies that black folk couldn’t go to. So we look at it now and it’s gone from Chocolate City to – I don’t know what kind of city it is now! It makes you stop and wonder. People look at me now and it’s like “What are you doing in this neighborhood?” My grandmothers, one lived on Wallace Place and one lived on Logan Circle. It’s like you go through those neighborhoods now and it’s like, “Why are you here? You trying to steal something, boy?” It makes you wonder again, when a John Lewis gets on TV and says that he goes through a crowd and they’re still calling him “nigger” and spitting on him? Those are the injustices I will fight against ‘til the day I die.
Destiny – Pride: What were the roads that lead you to your position at District Council 20 AFSCME and describe briefly some of the issues and challenges that you take on as its Executive Director.
Mr. Johnson: I came through the ranks. I actually came through the ranks. I was taught once I got into the union. I received my law degree and everything from this union. I wasn’t somebody that went to school and got into the union. I was in the union and the union helped me go to school.
Now, the things that I see that are the most challenging: We are really drifting back to the conservative right so hard that employees are getting shafted. If you look at what’s going on in the District of Columbia right now, for example in the school system we have a Mayor that I think is probably one of the most incompetent individuals I have ever seen. Not only is he egotistical, but I think he’s just incompetent. We talk about a person like a Marion, who supposedly gave his friend or somebody a $15,000 contract, when he [Mayor Fenty] has given people million dollar contracts, and nobody’s jumping up and down about that. Where with Marion, they want to take him out, put him beside a wall and shoot him down, but not Mayor Fenty. Well something’s wrong with a society that even allows that to go on – where those same people who are affiliated with him [Mayor Fenty] were two days from going to jail because they couldn’t pay their rent or anything else, but they don’t say anything about that. Now they’re millionaires. It’s something wrong with that. Whoever Marion was with is still poor today, O.K? They have no more today than they had when Marion gave whatever contracts he did. They never got rich. So, like I said, in our society, I’ve seen more people in this Administration go out the door. And I’m not talking about young people; I’m talking about people that have 20, 25, 30 years of service who are being replaced by a lot of young, white, “I look down my nose at black people” individuals. That bothers me.
Destiny – Pride: I understand that you are intricately involved in African affairs. Why is that, and please tell us about some of your ventures in Africa?
Mr. Johnson: I have family ties to Africa. My wife is from Africa and it really brought me to where I believe that I will eventually wind up. I have a son that was killed in Africa, and I visit there every year. I pay homage to him; I go home every year to pay homage, but I do work with the trade unions there. So it gives me a chance to not only put my head back on my shoulders right, but it also gives me a chance to understand where we all came from. It’s amazing because they think that things in America aren’t all honey and cream either. They know the plight of black folks going on here and they have their own plights going on over there. I think it’s a lot harder to live there than it is here because we waste so much here. We waste so entirely much, so it gives me a chance to see these two worlds that I live in. They accept me more readily there than anybody in this country will.
Destiny – Pride: Isn’t it more than just your wife living in Africa? You’re the son-in-law of the President, aren’t you?
Mr. Johnson: I’m the nephew of the presiding President there.
Destiny – Pride: And what country is that?
Mr. Johnson: That’s Zambia.
Destiny – Pride: Zambia. So people now – when they approach you – have to approach you as royalty
Mr. Johnson: No, they approach me just like I’m a Yankee American [laughter]. They make sure that I’m not trying to take anything out of the country when I come back. They might even pat me down extra when I come back, saying “make sure he’s not taking anything he’s not suppose to take” [laughter].
Destiny – Pride: This has just been one enjoyable conversation, Geo. Any final thoughts you would like to leave with our visitors
Mr. Johnson: I am so happy that “Pride” is up and taking its rightful place back, and I’m so glad that you are steering it back into the focus of our society because during the 60’s I think it was one of the most valuable entities that this city had. And your leadership – a lot of people never had a job; didn’t know what jobs were. And I mean real jobs; I’m not talking about a “no show” job. People learned some serious skills and I know that the work that you are undertaking now is far beyond what you did back in the 60’s. So it does my heart well because I know that out of what happened 40 years ago, it’s getting ready to blossom into an oak that will be here 50 years from now, and that says a whole lot about social programs that are long gone – CETA [Comprehensive Education and Training Act], and I can name a whole lot of other ones that had tons and tons of money dumped into them. So [to the visitors], all I want to say is that when this man comes to you, anything that you can do to help him, be sure to participate. And that’s what I want to say.
Destiny – Pride: Geo, we at Destiny – Pride wish to thank you for taking the time to share with our visitors some of the details regarding your life’s journey. We also thank you for all of the assistance you have given Destiny – Pride to help us to reach our goals and objectives. We send shout-outs to your staff at District Council 20 AFSCME for all their hard and tremendously important work in making sure that all employees are treated fairly and given an equal opportunity to advance in the workplace and to live out their American dream.