February 12, 2016
By Michael Byrne
Washington, DC – Former AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer William Lucy returned to the union’s headquarters Feb. 8 to celebrate Black History Month, declaring that low-wage jobs are the new slavery and that unions – particularly AFSCME – are powerful instruments that can bring people together and elevate dignity and respect for all working people.
“AFSCME started as just an idea, because we were not granted the same rights that unions in the public sector got under Franklin Roosevelt,” he said. “We’ve had to fight for everything we’ve gotten, turning our good idea into a great organization. We’ve empowered African Americans, and all public service workers.”
Lucy was introduced by AFSCME President Lee Saunders, who noted not only his nearly five decades of leadership with AFSCME, but also Lucy’s work as the president of Public Service International, which represents millions of public service workers around the globe, and how he co-founded both the Free South Africa Movement and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU).
“Bill was also in Memphis in 1968, working with the 1,300 sanitation workers, standing shoulder to shoulder with them as they fought for representation with AFSCME,” President Saunders said. “This union is in his heart, and his soul, and his blood.”
Lucy traced historical milestones that benefited African Americans and AFSCME, such as President Kennedy’s executive order that opened union representation for federal public employees, and which AFSCME used in lobbying state governments to expand union rights for public service workers. While many African Americans were leery of President Johnson, he said, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act that came out of his administration are landmarks.
The formation of the CBTU came about because African-American trade unionists were disappointed that the AFL-CIO decided to remain “neutral” in the Presidential race between Richard Nixon and George McGovern, Lucy said. “We thought there was a big difference between the two, so we called a meeting in Chicago. We were not the only ones concerned, because 1,300 other black trade unionists showed up for that meeting.”
Lucy compared President Obama with FDR, noting that the two had pulled our nation out of great depressions and recessions. “And now the same crowd that caused our problems are asking for another chance.”
He said the coalition of labor, African Americans, women and Hispanics is key for progressives to win elections. “Our opponents want to divide and conquer, but if we stay united, we will win.”