Implemented by Mayor Loeb when he was public works commissioner in the late 1950s, the practice of sending men home on rainy days cut costs, but it also provoked resentment. It robbed black workers in public works of their ability to count on a steady paycheck, and the men hated that. Ed Gillis, who was a nineteen veteran of the asphalt division of public works in 1968, remembered his fellow black workers’ reaction to being frequently sent home, “They didn’t like it, but they couldn’t help themselves. We weren’t getting anywhere….We didn’t have a union.” Discriminatory practices like this sowed the seeds of a backlash from the workers.
If the men of public works did not like Loeb pinching pennies at their expense when he was public works commissioner, they had taken steps to prevent that by the time he started his second term as mayor in 1968. They had a union, local 1733, and when news of the men being sent home got out, their union president, T.O. Jones, demanded the men get paid for the missed time. The director of public works, Charles Blackburn, refused. And though he promised to change the rainy day policy, the men started to talk amongst themselves. The rumor mill only sped up when news reached them that two men had died while out on a garbage pickup. As Ed Gillis recalls, he and other men started to discuss a potential strike, “all of us laborers got together and were going to quit work until we got a raise and got a better percentage. See. And would get justice on the job for the way they treated us.” In other words, they wanted fair treatment, and they were willing to walk off the job to get it.
Letter from Charles B. Blackburn to Joe Chumley and Charles Woodall, Feb 5 1968. Civil Rights Collection, DIG Memphis.
“Interview with Ed Gillis,” (Parts 16-18). YouTube, Uploaded by Crossroads Archive. Original tapes found in Memphis Search for Meaning Committee Records, University of Memphis Libraries Preservation and Special Collections Department.
“Interview with Mr.and Mrs. L. C. Reed,” (Part 2). YouTube, Uploaded by Crossroads Archive. Original tapes found in Memphis Search for Meaning Committee Records, University of Memphis Libraries Preservation and Special Collections Department.
Beifuss, Joan Turner. At The River I Stand. Memphis: St. Luke’s Press, 1985.