Oliver Palmer
Oliver Palmer served a business manager for the Washington, D.C. Cafeteria and Restaurant Workers Union Local 471 from 1943 until his death in 1975. He had previously served two years as secretary-treasurer and four years as president.

Palmer was one of the founders of the union in 1937 and helped lead the initial organizing drives that brought the union membership up to 5,000 during the 1940s.

He led the union through two bitter strikes in 1947 and 1948 against the dominant provider of federal cafeteria services, the private Government Services Incorporated.

The 1947 strike brought significant wage improvements, vacation improvements, established sick leave and fended off company attacks on binding arbitration for grievances and the withholding of union dues from paychecks.

The 1948 strike occurred at the beginning of the second Red Scare when GSI refused to negotiate unless the union leaders of both the local and its parent union signed affidavits that they were not communists.

Palmer charged GSI with using that as a cover for union busting and staged a two-month strike that finally reached an agreement with GSI after intervention by the Labor Department. The union was nearly broken but survived to fight another day.

Palmer oversaw the union as it made wage gains, established sick and vacation pay and ultimately health and welfare and pension benefits for the union members who were largely African American women.

The union was initially an affiliate of the CIO’s United Public Workers, but when that union collapsed during the second Red Scare, Local 471 continued as an independent union until it affiliated with the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union in the city after the merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955.

A longtime progressive force in District of Columbia politics, Palmer joined with Mary Church Terrell to provide the organizational strength to stage the pickets and demonstrations in the early 1950s that resulted in desegregation of Washington’s Jim Crow cafeterias and restaurants.

He was also active in the District’s home rule movement and served for many years on the District’s Democratic Central Committee.

Early in his career, he joined the International Labor Defense, the National Negro Congress and the NAACP. He served as a vice president of Washington’s Central Labor Council for 20 years.

When Palmer reflected on his life he said, “My activities in the labor movement, for the benefit of humanity, I consider the crowning glory of my life. They have been rewarding and very satisfying.”
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