Hired on by public works in 1958, T.O. worked as a garbage man in the sanitation division. In 1963, public works commissioner William W. Ferris terminated Jones and 33 other men in the sanitation division for attempting to organize a union. Eventually the division rehired most of the men. However, T.O. decided not to return to work.
Instead, he put his energies into organizing the men in public works. With the help of the local labor council, he recruited the AFSCME to issue a charter to the men he had organized. The charter recognized them as a local union within the AFSCME and allowed them to call upon the resources and support of the AFSCME in the event of a strike.
By 1966, the union, known as local 1733, felt strong enough to strike for better pay and union recognition by the city. Though they managed to convince a large number of workers in the sanitation division to join the strike, the city obtained an injunction outlawing a strike by city employees against the public health. As a result, the strike folded before it even began.
Despite the defeat in 1966, Jones proved instrumental in the early stages of the 1968 strike. He led the meeting where the union decided to go on strike, gathering up the men’s demands to carry to the city. When the director of public works Charles Blackburn refused to raise the men’s salaries, Jones dramatically announced he was ready to go to jail because as a leader of the strike he would be in violation of the 1966 injunction. However, Jones’ role diminished in importance as the strike wore on and national labor and civil rights leaders started to take on leadership roles in Memphis. Still, Jones’ early organization efforts were essential to getting the strike off the ground.
“Interview with T.O. Jones,” YouTube, Uploaded by Crossroads Archive. Original tapes found in Memphis Search for Meaning Committee Records, University of Memphis Libraries Preservation and Special Collections Department.
Unknown. “Hard, Dramatic Bargainer Acts Tough Role For The City.” Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), Feb. 13, 1968.
Beifuss, Joan Turner. At The River I Stand. 2nd ed. Memphis: St. Luke’s Press, 1990.