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William Lucy Biography

Launched Labor Career amid Social Strife, Worked with King on Memphis Strike


Labor union leader

Lucy, William, photograph. AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

For over three decades William (Bill) Lucy was at the fore-front of the labor movement. As Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) for 30-plus years, Lucy helped the group grow from 200,000 to over 1.4 million members in 3,500 unions nationwide. He also helped define the role of African Americans in the labor unions when he founded the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) in 1972. Along the way he has stood alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in civil rights struggles and Nelson Mandela in opposition to apartheid. Though his name is not as well known as these famous men, Lucy has carved out a legacy based on living wages, health care benefits, and job safety. And like Mandela and King's, Lucy's legacy lives on through the lives of hundreds of thousands of working families around the world every day.

Launched Labor Career amid
Social Strife

Born on November 26, 1933, in Memphis, Tennessee, William Lucy was raised in Richmond, California, after moving there as a boy with his parents Susie and Joseph Lucy. 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 news of the day was filled with both violent and inspiring images from such events as the Montgomery bus boycott, federal troops enforcing school segregation, and the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Meanwhile the Vietnam War was claiming the lives of tens of thousands young Americans and sparking nationwide anti-war demonstrations.

The labor movement was not immune to the tumultuous times. As it struggled to secure collective bargaining rights—the right for employees to negotiate with employers on everything from wages to job safety—for its members, 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.

Worked with King on
Memphis Strike

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. Replacement workers were brought in. Strikers were arrested. It was chaos. "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. After two months, the sanitation department still would not budge. Striker morale began to wane. Finally, AFSCME convinced Martin Luther King Jr. to become involved. The Labor Net Web site noted that Lucy said he "saw 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. It was also the only way to escape the racism they suffered on the job. 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.

At a Glance …

Born on November 26, 1933, in Memphis, TN; married Dorotheria Lucy; children: Benita, Phyllis. Education: University of California, Berkeley, studied civil engineering.

Career: Contra Costa County, California, assistant materials and research engineer, early 1950s-66; American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Washington, DC, associate director of the legislation and community affairs departments, 1966-72; AFSCME, Washington DC, secretary-treasurer, 1972–; Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), president, 1972–; Public Services International, president, 1994–.

Selected memberships: Free South Africa Movement, founder, 1984; American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), executive council member, 1995–; AFL-CIO African American Labor Center, board member; African America Institute, board member; Americans for Democratic Action, board member; Center for Policy Alternatives, board member.

Selected awards: Bowie State College, honorary doctorate of humane letters; Ebony, named one of "The 100 Most Influential Black Americans."

Addresses: Office—CBTU, 1900 L Street NW, Suite 405, Washington, DC 20036. Office—AFSCME, 1625 L Street NW, Washington, DC, 20036.

Founded the Coalition of
Black Trade Unionists

In 1972 Lucy became the highest ranking African American in the labor movement when he was elected secretary-treasurer of AFSCME, the organization's second highest post. His main job was auditing and budgets, but 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, representing 37 different unions. A key topic was the 1972 presidential elections. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) had taken a neutral stance on the elections. The black unionists believed this attitude would help re-elect Richard Nixon. Notes from the conference reprinted on the CBTU Web site stated, "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." However, more infuriating to the black unionists was that their viewpoint had been ignored by AFL-CIO leadership.

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. Forming CBTU was potentially tricky. 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.

Fought to Overturn Apartheid in
South Africa

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. Apartheid was a political and social policy that deemed blacks second-class citizens and institutionalized segregation. Lucy 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—the South African leader who had been imprisoned by the apartheid government for 27 years—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.

Remained Loyal to Labor after
(30 )

Lucy had been re-elected secretary-treasurer by AFSCME members every four years since 1972 and by 2004 he was ready to retire. He announced his retirement at AFSCME's 2004 International Convention. However, the conventioneers refused to accept his resignation. After several days of negotiations, Lucy agreed to accept another nomination to the post and was promptly re-elected to another four-year term.

The labor movement, and CBTU, still had much work to do. In 2003 reports had revealed that the loss of manufacturing jobs resulted in the unemployment rate among blacks rising at twice the rate as that among whites. "The number of jobs and the types of jobs that have been lost has severely diminished the standing of many blacks in the middle class," Lucy told the International Herald Tribune. Additionally, education continued to be a problem. "Our kids are coming out of school with an education for a past era," Lucy told The Philadelphia Tribune. "With the minimum wage at $5 an hour, they have already been relegated to the status of working poor." In reaction AFSCME offered scholarship and educational programs. However, Lucy revealed in an interview with the People's Weekly World Newspaper that the biggest challenge unions faced was membership. "For many years the dominant view within the AFL-CIO was that you really did not need to organize the maximum number of workers or your maximum potential, but simply organize enough to control a particular industry." He concluded, "The numbers tell the tale. Today unions only represent about 12-13 percent of eligible workers and considerably fewer in private employment."

With over 30 years in labor union organizing, management, and administration, Lucy is one of the few people with the skills and experience to tackle the myriad problems that affect the labor movement. In 2003 and 2004 he led demonstrations against the Iraq War, grassroots movements to defeat George W. Bush's presidential reelection, and a campaign to end political unrest in Zimbabwe. It is no wonder AFSCME members refused to let him retire. Not only did they need him, but so did laborers and their families worldwide.



International Herald Tribune, July 14, 2003.

Philadelphia Tribune, June 30, 2000.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 17, 1996.


"Martin Luther King: A Champion of Labor," Labor Net, www.labornet.org/viewpoints/meister/mlk.htm (December 28, 2004).

"Memphis 1968: We Remember," People's Weekly World Newspaper, www.pww.org/article/view/3213/1/155/ (December 28, 2004).

"Memphis: We Remember," Public Employee, www.afscme.org/about/memphis7.htm (December 28, 2004).

"President William Lucy," CBTU, www.cbtu.org/cbtupresident.html (December 28, 2004).

—Candace LaBalle

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