by Pablo Ros | September 19, 2012
AFSCME remembers two great leaders of the labor movement in Memphis, Tenn., who passed away this month – Rev. James E. Smith and Willie Joe Alexander.
Reverend Smith was executive director of Local 1733 from 1969 to 1993, and a longtime pastor at the Union Grove M.B. Church. As a labor leader, he was known for his direct, aggressive style. Reverend Smith passed away Sunday, Sept. 9, after a long illness. He was 71.
“It was exciting to work with him,” remembers Evelyn Liggins, an administrative assistant at Local 1733. “There was never a dull moment.”
Liggins recalls a wildcat strike –or a strike by workers without union authorization –with The Regional Medical Center at Memphis in which the center’s president fired 450 of the staff after they walked off the job. Later everyone was allowed back except 13 employees who, in Liggins’ words, were “very strong union members.”
As it turned out, Reverend Smith did not give up on those 13 members but fought back until all of them were reinstated to their jobs.
“He opened doors for a lot of people,” said Liggins. “He could generally get things done during his tenure with the local.”
Willie Joe Alexander was president of Local 1733 from 1994 to 2001. He is remembered as a strong fighter and as someone whose authoritative manner made him “very straightforward and to the point,” in the words of Liggins. Alexander died Thursday, Sept. 6. He was 72.
Alexander retired from Shelby County Corrections Center, and was a former employee of Firestone Tires. In addition to his leadership at AFSCME, Alexander was president of Pinnacle Airlines union and an honorable member of the Free Masons, according to his obituary.