Long before I became labor secretary, I was awed and inspired by the role that the department has played in the struggle for equality and justice at so many transformative moments in our nation’s history. But I continue to learn new stories and make new connections between our work and the movements that changed our world. Case in point: the pivotal role played by James J. Reynolds, the department’s assistant secretary for labor-management relations under President Lyndon Johnson, in the resolution of the Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968.
These workers, who were overwhelmingly African-American, earned poverty wages, endured deplorable and degrading working conditions and faced brutal beatings when they tried to organize. In February 1968, almost a thousand of them went on strike, rallying around a simple but powerful motto: “I Am a Man.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis to lend his support and his moral authority to the movement, a mission that would cost him his life when he was gunned down on the balcony of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel on April 4.
The King assassination exacerbated existing tensions, not just in Memphis but also with riots igniting around the country. But it was clear that the healing would need to begin in Memphis. President Johnson quickly dispatched Assistant Secretary Reynolds to the city to help resolve the crisis. As more than 40,000 mourners, including King’s widow and children, marched in silence through the city on April 8, Reynolds had begun negotiations with the city to deliver justice to the strikers.
One key point in the negotiations involved Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb’s refusal to allow the workers to automatically deduct union dues from their paychecks. Reynolds’ clever solution was the intervention of a federally administered credit union as an intermediary. Workers could set up payments to the credit union, which would then transfer funds to the union. It was a solution that allowed the city to save some face while expanding the workers’ freedom to collectively bargain.
Two weeks after King’s death, the conflict was over – with the city promising to recognize the strikers’ union and offering wage increases. The episode is a reminder that even volatile standoffs can be resolved through perseverance and dialogue, with the result being greater opportunity for all.
As we come to the end of Black History Month, we continue to celebrate the high-profile activism of men like Dr. King and the tremendous courage of the Memphis sanitation workers (the department inducted them into its Hall of Honor in 2011). But let’s also remember those less-heralded leaders like Assistant Secretary Reynolds, whose intellect and innovation, whose combination of idealism and pragmatism, advanced the causes of civil rights and labor rights.
Follow Secretary Perez on Twitter as @LaborSec.