BOSTON – The fighting mood at the 39th Convention of America’s 1.2 million-member public workers union here was tempered with some sadness this week because of the retirement of AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer William Lucy after a 57 year stint with the union.
Lucy worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1968 strike by sanitation workers in Memphis. He continued his collaboration with King until the civil right leader’s assassination.
He is a founder and president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, an organization that includes both union leaders and rank-and-file trade unionists who fight for what they see as the special needs of African-American and other minority workers.
When the AFL-CIO took a position of neutrality in the Nixon vs. McGovern contest for the presidency of the United States in 1972, the CBTU, under Lucy’s leadership, came out boldly for McGovern. He said at the time that the labor movement could not remain neutral when the choice for the nation was between someone who wanted to roll back labor and civil rights and someone who stood for those rights.
In the mid-1980’s Lucy helped found the Free South Africa movement. Out of that organization there developed a nationwide and international struggle against apartheid that eventually resulted in freedom for Nelson Mandela and collapse of the hated apartheid system in South Africa.
A video presentation at the convention portrayed Lucy’s history as a fighter for civil rights and economic justice.
“We’ve always known that there’s a crisis,” Lucy said during his farewell speech. “It might be more intense now, but there’s always been a crisis for millions of people not as lucky as we are in this room,” he said. “There’s a daily crisis in their lives, as they struggle to put bread on their tables, to put clothes on their backs, and have a roof over their heads. We have a responsibility to help them out.”
Lucy said he hoped that, “when the final history of this union is written people will say of me simply that I did my best.”
Thousands began chanting, “Thank you Bill!” as they waved placards that said the same thing. They kept it up for more than five minutes.