You might not know what it stands for, but you’ve probably seen the acronym AFSCME from time to time.
It’s a pretty big deal in the world of labor. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is the largest trade union for public employees in the country.
One of the people responsible for giving AFSCME the standing it enjoys today is William “Bill” Lucy, who served at different times as the union’s president, associate director of legislation and community affairs, and international secretary and treasurer over a 40-year span. In that time, he helped the union grow from 200,000 to 1.4 million members in 3,500 local chapters around the country.
He joined the union in 1956 and retired as secretary and treasurer in 2010.
In 1968, three years after being elected president, Lucy supported Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the mostly Black sanitation and other service workers in Memphis who were on strike to demand better wages and benefits.
In a 2019 Black History Month special from NBC Bay Area, Lucy said he wanted to help organize workers in Memphis because he recognized the conditions they were unhappy with were prevalent all across the country.
“The themes of jobs and freedom were critical issues that needed addressed,” he said in a video. “The organizers of the march … were talking about how this could really catalyze a lot of other activities across the country.”
Lucy, who is credited with the “I am a man” slogan that became popular with Memphis strikers, continued his work in the city even after King’s assassination in April of that year.
His work in expanding AFSCME and assisting Dr. King and sanitation workers in Memphis would be plenty enough to hang a hat on at the end of a long career, but it’s only one of many ways Lucy has fought for common people throughout his life.
In 1972, Lucy co-founded the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and served as its president.
After the release of Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned by the South African apartheid government for nearly 30 years, Lucy helped lead a fundraising effort to bring Mandela on a tour of the United States.
Lucy also traveled to South Africa as part of an American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) delegation to monitor the first post-apartheid elections. He was there when Mandela was elected as the country’s first Black president.
Lucy went on to serve as executive council for AFL-CIO in the mid-1990s and served as vice president for several of the organization’s departments.
Lucy was also elected as the first African American president of Public Services International, which is the world’s largest union federation. He oversaw 10 million union members from more than 100 nations.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.