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AFSCME Says Goodbye to Long-Time Secretary-Treasurer William "Bill" Lucy



On Monday, during the 2010  American Federation of State, County and Municipal  Employees(AFSCME) Convention in Boston, MA, delegates paid tribute to former Secretary-Treasurer William "Bill" Lucy, who formally announced his retirement in early February.

Bidding farewell amid chants of “Thank you, Bill,” Lucy stressed the importance of fighting for social justice, a commitment that has characterized his public service career. “We’ve always known that there’s a crisis. It may be more intense now, but there’s always been a crisis for millions of people not as lucky as we are in this room,” Lucy said. “There’s a daily crisis in their lives, as they struggle to put bread on their tables, to put clothes on their backs, to have a roof on their heads. We have a responsibility to help them out.”

As Secretary-Treasurer for over 30 years, Lucy has been at the forefront of the labor movement. By helping AFSCME grow from 200,000 to over 1.6 million members, he has defined the role of African Americans in the labor unions.  Along the way, he has not only stood beside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, but Nelson Mandela in opposition to apartheid as well. Though his name is not as well known, Lucy has carved out a legacy based on living wages, health care benefits, and job safety. But, like Mandela and King, Lucy's legacy lives on through the lives of hundreds of thousands of working families around the world every day.
 
Born on November 26, 1933, in Memphis, Tennessee, William Lucy was raised in Richmond, California. After studying civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1950s, he landed a job as an assistant materials and research engineer for Contra Costa County, California. Though he held that position for 13 years, Lucy's true career calling lay in unions. In 1956 he had joined the AFSCME Local 1675 union of Contra Costa employees and in 1965 he was elected its president. The following year, he left engineering to work full-time for the AFSCME international organization as the associate director of the legislation and community affairs departments.

At the time Lucy began his career in labor leadership, American society was experiencing great changes. The civil rights movement was steadily overturning years of racism and segregation to claim equal rights for African Americans. The labor movement was not immune to the tumultuous times. AFSCME chapters country-wide launched marches and strikes. Sadly consistent with the times, those actions were often met with violent police reaction. The history of AFSCME is riddled with stories of members being beaten, tear-gassed, and jailed. Lucy received his own fair share of beatings and jailing over the years.
 

By 1968, the civil rights movement had led to laws banning segregation in publicly funded programs from health care to housing. However, working conditions for African Americans still lagged far behind those for white laborers. It became clear that the goals of civil rights and labor rights movement were intertwined. One of the most potent cases to prove this connection was the 1968 sanitation worker's strike in Memphis. Black sanitation workers had no rights, no sick pay, no health care, and no job security. Pay was so low that many of them qualified for welfare. They also suffered racism and disrespect.

"There were two battles being fought in the Memphis march. One of racial oppression and the other oppression of jobs," Lucy told The Philadelphia Tribune. "Those 1,300 sanitation workers in 1968 were a classic picture of the working rural poor, looking for a better life."

The sanitation workers had formed AFSCME Local 1733 in 1964, but the Memphis city government refused to acknowledge the union. In 1968 the workers decided to strike. Lucy traveled to Memphis to lend his support. Pickets and marches were met with police batons and beatings.

"We didn't have job descriptions," Lucy told The Philadelphia Tribune. "We did whatever had to be done."

The strike's logo was "I am a Man," a sentiment that struck a deep chord within Memphis's African-American community, which supported the strikers by providing meals and raising funds. Despite the support, the sanitation department still would not budge. Finally, AFSCME convinced Martin Luther King Jr. to become involved.

Lucy was quoted as saying  "King bring tears to the eyes of strikers and their families just by walking into a meeting."

King assured the strikers that the right to unionize was a civil right. On the morning of April 4th, 1968, King was preparing to lead a striker's march when an assassin's bullet took his life. International outcry over King's death brought an intense spotlight on Memphis and the city had no choice but to settle the strike. Lucy was part of the negotiations that led to the recognition of the sanitation workers' union.

In 1972 Lucy became the highest ranking African American in the labor movement when he was elected Secretary-Treasurer of AFSCME. While his main job was auditing and budgets,  he remained active in labor issues; from negotiations with government and corporations to strikes and marches, both for workers and for oppressed communities in general. In September of 1972, Lucy led a conference of 1,200 black union members, the main focus being the 1972 presidential elections. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) had taken a neutral stance on the elections, which lead the black unionists to believe that this attitude would help re-elect Richard Nixon.

"We are concerned that the re-election of Richard Nixon will almost certainly result in four more years of favored treatment for the rich and powerful; continued unemployment; frozen wages; high prices; appointment of additional members of the U.S. Supreme Court who are conservative and insensitive to the rights of workers, minorities, and the poor; more repression and restriction of civil liberties; and the reversal or total neglect of civil rights."

The group decided to found the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) to ensure African Americans a voice in labor. "We are in nobody's pocket, do not intend to get in anybody's pocket, and we are going to assume a position of full partners," the CBTU Web site quoted Lucy as saying at the organization's founding.  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted, "[CBTU was] indicating that a labor movement founded on unity and solidarity lacked both when it came to racial matters. Many observers predicted divisiveness and an early demise." Those observers underestimated Lucy and his colleagues. Lucy became the first president of CBTU—a post he held into 2005—and helped grow the group into a 13,000 member strong force in labor.

"We've managed to evolve to a situation where we're no longer pounding on the door but are participating in the development of policy,"
Lucy told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
 

Lucy's work was not limited to the United States. In 1974, CBTU called for an economic boycott of the apartheid regime of South Africa. Lucy would later founded the Free South Africa Movement, a grassroots campaign that sparked widespread opposition to apartheid across the United States. After the release of Nelson Mandela, Lucy led a fundraising effort to bring Mandela on a United States tour. Four years later, when South Africa had its first post-apartheid elections, Lucy went as part of an AFL-CIO monitoring delegation. After twenty years of fighting apartheid, Lucy was present when Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa.

Throughout the 1990s Lucy continued to move through the upper ranks of international labor. In November of 1994 he was elected president of Public Services International (PSI), the world's largest union federation. The first African American to hold this position, Lucy oversaw 10 million members from over 100 nations. In 1995 the AFL-CIO appointed Lucy to its executive council, the federation's highest decision-making body. He also served as vice president for several of AFL-CIO's departments including the Industrial Union, Maritime Trades, and Professional Employees. In addition Lucy served on the boards of directors of civic groups such as the African America Institute, Americans for Democratic Action, and the Center for Policy Alternatives.

William Lucy is frequently listed on Ebony Magazine's "100 Most Influential Black Americans". He currently resides in Washington, D.C.
 


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