Every morning, Mary Moultrie walks into a King Street office and faces the black-and-white images of her famous past.

The photographs that line the walls tell a story of one of the most troubled times in recent Charleston history: picketing workers in white uniforms, thousands of people marching down Calhoun Street, petite women tussling with police officers.

The photographs won't let her forget. They remind her why she's here.

Back in 1969, Moultrie tried to organize a local union to force hospitals to pay their "nonprofessional" workers the federal minimum wage. Her efforts sparked a bitter, months-long feud that eventually reached the White House. It led to a 20th-century siege of Charleston, a national event that brought in labor and civil rights leaders.

Her work made her a star, a symbol of the working class and, ultimately, cost her plenty.

Now, after nearly 40 years, Moultrie has returned to her early calling. She is fighting once again for the rights of health care workers, recruiting converts to her cause one at a time.

In her little King Street office, Moultrie is an organizer for a local union chapter.

"A lot of people say history repeats itself," Moultrie says. "But right now, I'm living it. I just feel good that I'm a part of seeing it happen again."

Some people would say that she is trying to do the impossible: earn recognition for organized labor in a right-to-work state.

But they don't know Moultrie. This is a woman who once went to jail for her beliefs and eventually forced local hospitals to raise their wages. And she says that a change is coming, she can feel it.

And some people, the ones who have seen her at work, believe it.

"She is the ideal person to do it," says Bill Saunders, a community activist. "She has the power."

The past repeats

This all started, or restarted, in February 2007 at the premiere of a documentary on the 113-day Charleston hospital strike. The screening had turned into something of a reunion for veterans of the strike, and one of those people was Henry Nicholas.

Nicholas, who lives in Philadelphia, is president of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, an organization that represents 150,000 workers in 14 states. He remembered Moultrie from the strike and struck up a conversation with her that night.

Moultrie recalls Nicholas saying, "Maybe it's time to take another run at Charleston."

That's all she needed to hear. By July, she was deep in planning a Local 1199 office.

"Her heart was in it," Nicholas said earlier this week. "I told her if she felt the commitment and interest was there, we would be willing to assist."

For Moultrie, it was an easy decision. This has always been about the rights of workers, nothing else.

She was a reluctant organizer in the 1960s, taking up her role only after seeing a few Medical College (now Medical University of South Carolina) workers fired for what she considered unjust reasons. Some of the people — mostly women, mostly black — could not use the same break room as whites, had to endure racial slurs. On top of that, many of the hospital's nurse's aides, dietary staff and cleaning crews were paid 30 cents less than the minimum wage.

In 1969, Moultrie pushed for relief until she and some of her colleagues finally got a meeting with the hospital president. He didn't show, and they were fired for walking off their jobs even though the president had called them to his office.

The strike soon followed.

It was not the best advertisement for Charleston, or the best sequel to the Civil Rights Act. At one point, Moultrie was marching down Calhoun Street with Coretta Scott King, and soldiers were camped out around the city.

The governor refused to recognize the unions, and eventually the Nixon administration got involved. The Medical College was threatened with the loss of federal funding if this wasn't settled and off the nightly news. Finally, an agreement was reached, pay was increased and most workers went back to their jobs.

Moultrie's efforts made her a darling of the unions, and she was flown around the country to speak to chapters. She was uncomfortable with it. Moultrie remembers once seeing her picture on a union poster in a local chapter office. She turned around and left without telling anyone she was there.

A few years after the strike, Moultrie left the hospital and moved to New York. When she came back to Charleston a few years later, she finished out her career running the Julian Devine Community Center. She retired a few years ago.

A new beginning

It's Friday night at the 1199 office, and sanitation workers are rolling in.

Because they handle hazardous waste, the city's sanitation crews are eligible to be in the union, and so far, about 90 percent of them have signed up.

As they gather for their meeting, they find themselves in the midst of strike veterans. Rosetta Simmons, who organized workers at Charleston County Hospital, says it feels great to help a new generation of workers.

"It brings back memories, some that are joyful and others that are sad," Simmons says. "It is so stirring and ironic, some of the things that are going on now are just like they were 39 years ago."

Simmons, Moultrie and other organizers talk to health care workers regularly, and they hear various complaints about working conditions. But some things never change; only a few dozen have joined the union.

"They'll say, 'I can't go on strike!' " Moultrie says. "And I say, nobody said anything about a strike? Nobody here wanted a strike. We were forced to strike."

The sanitation workers at Friday's meeting are not talking about such dramatic issues. They are worried about sanitary conditions: where the drinking water is stored on the truck, the kind of gloves they are issued to work on the truck and who pays for them.

Saunders, who attends the meeting as an adviser, says the sanitation workers are the backbone of the city, and their health and safety are important issues. But it's unclear what the union can do about those issues at this point.

City officials say right-to-work laws in South Carolina prohibit them from formally recognizing unions or entering any collective bargaining talks over pay or benefits.

Susan Herdina, assistant city attorney for Charleston, says that the city is happy to talk to anyone, union member or individual employee, about workplace concerns. In other words, unions can lobby for change but have no legal authority.

Nicholas says the chapter is "on pace," and he thinks it eventually will be successful. Janie Campbell, the acting president of Local 1199, admits that it's a struggle to put together a union chapter, but notes that they have gotten help from the longshoremen and are bringing in more organizers.

And it doesn't hurt, she says, to have Moultrie around.

"She's definitely a good role model," Campbell says. "Without them (Moultrie and Simmons), it would be even harder to do this."

Moultrie says she hopes the mood of the country, and its attitude toward unions, is changing. She points to the election of Barack Obama as president as proof. He courted union voters and won endorsements, and Moultrie said maybe Obama can nudge the country forward to achieve union goals.

But she's not waiting for anyone to tell her she can do this. It's what she tells the workers she talks to daily.

"When it comes to change, you can't just sit around waiting for it," Moultrie says. "You've got to make something happen."

That is something Moultrie knows a lot about.

Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or bhicks@postand courier.com