Willie Rudd, union and civil rights fighter
We mourn the death and honor the memory of Willie Rudd, who devoted his
life to the struggle for workers' rights in the South. Brother Rudd died of
a heart attack on June 20 at the age of 55. The list of positions he held
was long: President of Furniture Workers/IUE Local 282 in Memphis, Tenn.;
President of the Furniture Workers Division of IUE nationally; Vice
President, Memphis AFL-CIO Labor Council; IUE National Boycott Director.
But he was not a man of "positions."
In an era in which all too many union officials practice a self-serving
"business unionism," Willie Rudd was a militant fighter who believed
passionately in developing rank-and-file leadership. In the poorest, most
racist and most virulently anti-union environments, he launched campaigns
against powerful corporations. In an overwhelmingly white international
union, he was a Black union leader who was not silent in the face of racism
within "the house of labor."
Local 282 became legendary in the South for being more than a union; it
became a movement. For many workers in Tennessee and Mississippi, Willie
Rudd was, quite simply, "the best union leader in the country."
Born in Sardis, Miss., Rudd came to Memphis as a child. In 1963, while
working at National Bedding, a mattress plant, he joined Furniture Workers
Local 282. A rank-and-file leader in the 1965 strike there, he was elected
chief steward at the plant.
As the labor movement in the South was transformed under the impact of
1960s civil rights struggles, Willie Rudd became a volunteer union
organizer. In the late 1960s, he often traveled far from Memphis to help
workers in poverty-wage, predominantly Black plants win a union. In 1975 he
was elected president of Local 282.
Black women, always a large proportion of the union's membership, became
leaders in the local in the 1970s. Ida Leachman, Aletha Baptist and
Everlena Yarbrough led organizing campaigns. Rank-and-file women conducted
contract negotiations. Willie Rudd encouraged this new leadership and often
insisted that in union struggles, "It's the women who are important."
The bitter 1977 Memphis Furniture strike marked the new kind of union Local
282 had become. It was as much a civil rights crusade as a strike. Rudd
exposed the owners' vicious racism and publicly traced their ancestry to
prominent slaveowner families. Dozens of community organizations rallied to
support the workers; Coretta Scott King returned to Memphis to speak at a
mass meeting at Mason Temple. The workers won a contract.
In the 1990s Local 282 had to fight runaway shops and sophisticated
anti-union lawyers as they went to the aid of workers in Mississippi and
rural west Tennessee. At Hood Furniture, in Jackson, Miss., workers waged
an 11-year-long battle for a Local 282 contract. For a decade, they
maintained their shop floor organization even after the International
signed them to a sweetheart deal with another local.
Hood workers wrote in N&L: "We voted for Local 282 because it is an
organization that fights for its members and supports them, and because we
learned to trust and believe in its president, Willie Rudd, an independent
Black man." The Hood workers' struggle has drawn support from civil rights
organizations across the South.
At Willie Rudd's funeral, Memphis Central Church was packed with workers
and friends. Management at the Sealy plant offered to let stewards off from
work to attend the funeral, but when they took a tally of all the workers
who wanted to attend, they realized there wouldn't be enough workers to run
production. The plant was closed in his honor.
Ida Leachman, interim president of Local 282, asked that all who want to
donate money to honor Willie Rudd make donations either to Local 282, 3275
Millbranch Road, Suite A, Memphis, TN 38116, or to the Memphis chapter of
the A. Philip Randolph Institute, 4950 Tiergarten, Memphis, TN 38109.
"But the most important thing you can do," she said, "is to help finish the
unfinished tasks he left us, organizing the unorganized here. That means
boycotting Sears to support Local 282 workers at Sears' Olive Branch, Miss.
warehouse, who have been negotiating for a first contract for over a year."
Brother Willie Rudd will be deeply missed, but the struggles he waged will
be carried on.