March 2, 2023

William Lucy is the former  International Secretary of Treasurer of the  American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and one of the co-founders of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.  Lucy retired 10 years ago and is currently on the Board of Directors of the NAACP.

In the following interview, Lucy discusses the impact of the 1968 I am A Man Campaign, where sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis, Tennessee. Lucy was a labor leader for this strike.

In celebration of Black History Month, Lucy was interviewed by Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions.

Wilson: Can you provide some background on how the I am A Man Campaign, and how it relates to anti-hunger, anti-poverty issues? 

The I am a Man Campaign was part of a much larger effort to organize the union in Memphis, Tennessee. While it was a key part of the campaign, it was not a stand alone part. The campaign really was an effort to bring respect and dignity to sanitation workers in that city.

In 1968, there were very few people who knew about or cared about the work of sanitation employees. They needed to build a program to make the community aware  not only of who they were, but what they did. Out of the strike came a real organizing effort both to educate and build awareness of what these workers did.

Very few people gave a lot of thought or attention to the dangers of the work. This was work that brought negative health conditions to the community as a whole.

In most cities, particularly across the South, this type of work was almost exclusively  reserved for Black workers and black men. You had workers who were at the lower end of the pay scale and by and large without the preparation and training to do a whole lot of other things. The work was reserved for people with low skills or no skills, and it was work that they could get based on their own individual conditions.

From your perspective, what were some of the lessons learned from the campaign that helped other organizing efforts, both labor organizing efforts and civil rights efforts ? 

The first Civil Rights issue that you see right away is that the work is by and large regulated to Black men and poor men. The skills required to do the work are not skills that you learn in high school or college.  They were skills that were learned because there was no other option than to do [the work]. By and large, the men schooled themselves on how to do the work as safely as possible. The men who came in learned how to do it from the men who were already there. You learned to appreciate the colleagues who helped do the work since it wasn’t just a job that required strength, it was a job that required know-how.

Secondly, during the course of our strike, the entire community learned the value of  what these men did [through the sanitation work]. They learned how the sanitation workers were the ones who physically moved the solid waste from the community.  It kept at least the well to do part of the community clean.

What’s interesting is that as these men organized into unions and began to represent themselves and have representation, they tended to earn a bit more money.

This was despite the fact that the sanitation work provided low wages [at first]. As their wages got better, you found that the municipalities and cities were spending more money to  buy better equipment. They needed these men less than they did in 1968. You now had very high tech machinery that helps in picking up garbage. As you get better machinery, you needed better skilled workers. So municipalities  tend to earn a little more money, but lose more jobs and need the workers less.  It’s really about the lack of concern for these workers.

In recognition of celebrating Black History Month in February, what are the lessons learned and advice you have for current and future leaders advocating for civil rights in the 21st century? 

We will always need workers who understand the role of their job- in this case solid waste collection and the equipment necessary for the work. We will forever need workers who have these types of skills. They should aspire to have developing skills that manage that kind of work. Our workers need to have a series of skills that prepare them for upward mobility and be prepared to learn the technical parts of the job. Now sanitation workers do a lot of recycling work. Those are jobs that require workers  who have and earn decent wages. Solid waste is not just garbage to be disposed of, it is garbage to be saved and used in other kinds of situations.

You’re from Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis has been in the news recently for very bad reasons. We’ve seen a police killing of a Black man, which we have seen so many times. This is not new, this is still continuing. What’s your reaction to this, as this is horrific in so many ways. 

It’s the people (such as the sanitation workers) who made the fight to open up the city of Memphis so that there could be a diversified workforce. People who are low education, but not necessarily low skills had the opportunity to get into jobs that had decent wages. We didn’t fight this fight to have people who did the same thing that others had done before them.  The key is that everyone has a fighting chance to move upward in terms of mobility and to take the opportunity to find better jobs and better working conditions. We need to make sure the young people who follow them have a shot at the same kinds of decent jobs.

While Memphis has made progress, there can be some bad decisions and bad policy makers that produce the same types of problems that we’ve had over the last fifty to a hundred years.  The recent killings are just one more example of that.

What are your concluding thoughts?

We got the notion that every youngster should go to Harvard –and that’s not a knock on Harvard. But there are hundreds and hundreds of decent  jobs that people can do and build a life without being college educated.

We should prepare ourselves to find skill based jobs such as in food preparation. Right now is a golden opportunity for skill based jobs that pay decent wages.