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Black History Month: Bill Lucy Remembers ’68 Strike

Photo by Hey Suk Chong
By Pete Levine ·

Former AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Bill Lucy offered a firsthand account of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike during a Black History Month keynote address at AFSCME headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

The strike “raised one of the more fundamental questions in our society about the plight of the working poor,” Lucy said. 

Referring to the 1,300 sanitation workers who struck in February, 1968, for dignity, fair wages and better working conditions, Lucy said, “These were people who worked every single day, but still couldn’t raise themselves out of poverty.”

Their only hope – and the hope of millions of other families to this day, noted Lucy – was to join together in a union to gain a voice.

Lucy said he had been working for AFSCME in Detroit at the time of the strike and was sent by the union’s then-president, Jerry Wurf, to assist the strikers, members of AFSCME Local 1733.

Early on, recalled Lucy, the strike had nearly 100 percent support and had brought all the city’s garbage trucks to a standstill, resulting in tons of trash building up. Lucy believed the strike would be short-lived, that the city would have no choice but to meet the sanitation workers’ demands.

“I parked in the short-term parking lot in Detroit,” Lucy joked. “I came back 75 days later.”

Hitting a Wall

Lucy, along with an AFSCME delegation sent to Memphis to assist the sanitation workers, came up against a figure known well to the workers: Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb. Loeb had long refused to sit down with the sanitation workers and listen to their grievances.

Those grievances included the fact that the city had ignored important safety concerns, which, on February 1, 1968, had led to the deaths of two men, Echol Cole and Robert Walker; that the city paid a worker $1.65 per day for years on end with no hope of a raise; that the city, on rainy days when work was stopped, allowed white workers to collect a full day’s pay but sent black workers home with nothing.

Lucy noted that the strike nearly settled – twice. However, the sticking point for Memphis’ mayor remained union recognition. Every time it seemed an agreement was at hand, Loeb balked at recognizing AFSCME as the workers’ representative.

On February 23, 1968, after a failed attempt to bring the strike to a close, a march was organized back to the union hall, and, according to Lucy, “the police, for the first time, tested Mace as a crowd control proposition on all those who were marching with the striking workers.”

It was a turning point, recalled Lucy. “The strike was no longer just about workers and employers.”

Striking members of AFSCME Local 1733 hold signs whose slogan, “I Am A Man,” symbolized the Memphis sanitation workers' campaign in 1968. (Photo by Richard L. Copley)

A Movement

Organizers enlisted the help of hundreds of religious leaders, eventually persuading many influential factions within the city to support the workers.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who joined the strikers halfway through their struggle, viewed the strike as a reflection of the same values he was fighting for in the Poor People’s Campaign.

“Our pursuit of life, liberty and happiness is something we hold dear,” Lucy said. “But for 1,300 sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, that idea was ‘fake news.’ For them, there was no real opportunity to improve their lives. There was no way for them to alter that situation.”

As the strike wore on, it became more dangerous, with widespread violence at the hands of the Memphis police occurring during a March 28 march. The evening before he was assassinated, Dr. King gave what came to be known as The Mountaintop Speech at the Mason Temple, which Lucy recalled as “one of the most profound speeches related to the entire spectrum of issues that people – particularly people in the Deep South – were confronted with.”

The strike ended on April 16 in part, according to Lucy, because President Lyndon Johnson had dispatched Undersecretary of Labor James Reynolds to take charge of mediation.

Ironically, by the time an agreement was reached, what had started out as two principal demands: union recognition and dues check-off, grew. The final contract also included a grievance procedure, a wage increase, a promotion policy, seniority process, non-discrimination provisions, and more.

Lucy recalled: “I have personally never found a better and broader group of men to work with. All [the strikers] ever asked for was a bit of respect and a sense of dignity for what they did. We should forever keep the history of this struggle alive.”

I AM 2018

Through its I AM 2018 campaign, AFSCME and the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) have embarked on a new movement that will draw inspiration from the heroes of Memphis and connect their struggle to today’s challenges for social and racial justice.

The campaign comes as the nation observes the 50th anniversary of the Memphis, Tennessee, strike, a turning point in our nation’s struggle for civil and worker rights.

Learn more at iam2018.org.

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