In the Public Service
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO
AFSCME Wins in Memphis (April, 1968)
City Capitulates After King Death
The Public Employee, April 1968
[Note: In 1968, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees was abbreviated SCME rather than AFSCME as it is today.]
A victory over the reactionary city administration of Memphis was scored here by Local 1733, SCME.
The administration, led by Mayor Henry Loeb, capitulated, ending a 65-day strike that began February 12.
Union recognition, dues deduction, wage increases, a four-step grievance procedure ending in arbitration, and end to racial discrimination in promotions and job assignments and other notable gains were achieved for the 1,300 members of Local 1733.
Jubilant members of the union ratified the agreement with the city by a unanimous standing vote at a meeting April 16 in Clayborn Temple here. The strikers cheered, stamped their feet and hugged one another in a prolonged victory demonstration. Strikers and their leaders wept openly.
Details of the agreement, the first ever entered into by the City of Memphis with a union, were reported to the members by International President Jerry Wurf, Local 1733 President T.O. Jones, International Field Staff Director P.J. Ciampa and William Lucy, associate director of Legislative and Community Affairs for the International. Also participating were Jesse Epps and Joseph Paisley, International representatives, who were on the scene throughout the strike.
The celebration, however, was tinged with sadness as it was recalled how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated while in Memphis to aid the striking public works employees.
"Let us never forget that Martin Luther King, on a mission for us, was killed in this city," Wurf told the hushed meeting. "He helped bring us this victory."
The agreement was adopted as a resolution by the City Council by a vote of 12 to 1, and signed by Mayor Loeb, who had vowed that he would never recognize the union nor grant dues deduction.
As it was, he did both of these and also agreed to pay a 10-cent-an-hour increase effective May 1, and another 5 cents on September 1. He had offered only an 8-cent increase throughout the long strike, pleading the city was in dire financial straits and could not afford more.
The mayor's intransigent attitude and racial overtones had been rallying points during the strike. Even before Dr. King was killed, the strikers had won the solid support of the Negro community, labor movement, civil rights leaders here and throughout the nation, clergymen of all faiths and other concerned citizens.
Public attention was focused on the strike from its earliest stages through daily marches by the sanitationmen to City Hall, backed by Negro clergymen. The cause of the strikers brought unity to the often-divided Negro community as it coalesced behind the strikers, most of whom are Negroes.
The workers' protest also was extended to include a consumer boycott of downtown merchants and the city's two daily newspapers, which encouraged Loeb's stand against the union from the beginning of the dispute.
Dr. King came to Memphis in response to an appeal from Negro clergymen and led a march in support of the strikers that ended in a brief flare of violence when 30 young militants left the march and clashed with police.
This set the stage for Dr. King's return to Memphis to lead another march, scheduled for April 8, on City Hall. On the evening of April 4, Dr. King was shot from ambush by a sniper.
The resulting repercussions are well known. As the nation mourned the death of Dr. King, some elements resorted to violence. But in Memphis, the focus remained on the plight of the strikers and the determination to win their battle for justice and dignity.
The cause of the strikers was so close to Dr. King that his widow came to Memphis to lead the march he had planned. This occurred on the day before Dr. King's funeral in Atlanta.
Bayard Rustin was major-domo of the march. AFL-CIO Civil Rights director Don Slaiman represented George Meany on the march.
Dr. King's death also brought the personal intervention of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the strike situation. He dispatched Under Secretary of Labor James J. Reynolds to Memphis to aid in resolving the issues. Reynolds joined Frank Miles, a labor mediator, who had been retained by the City Council.
Negotiations between the union and the city were recessed on April 8 while more than 40,000 persons from all over the nation marched silently in memory of Dr. King. Leading the huge column were Mrs. King, the King children, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, King's successor, Jerry Wurf, Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers, and many other leaders of labor, clergy, civil rights.
Many of those marching were there as a result of the formation of "Memphis, U.S.A." The organization, established by SCME, had a broad trade union base and helped obtain funds to aid the strikers and to rally support for them and their march.