Shuttered buildings for workers unions tell of changes in local economy

Perhaps the most well-known Memphis union story is the most tragic one: the 1968 sanitation strike by members of AFSCME, Local 1733 that brought Dr. Martin Luther King to Memphis and unfortunately sealed his fate. Union buildings in Memphis, and the changes that have happened to them, reflect the history of the city. Today, the landscape for unions, like in years past, is not without its issues.

Perhaps the most well-known Memphis union story is the most tragic one: the 1968 sanitation strike by members of AFSCME, Local 1733 that brought Dr. Martin Luther King to Memphis and unfortunately sealed his fate.

Unions have existed in Memphis for a long time. For instance, the Sheet Metal Workers Union, Local 4, was established in 1888. But the city has not always been welcoming to them. According to a May 21, 2006 Commercial Appeal article, “Laboring to Solve Impasse” by Blake Fontenay, “Under the watchful eyes of political boss E.H. Crump, the city’s mayors and police often used violence to quell organizing attempts. Union leaders were sometimes beaten by police.”

Union buildings in Memphis, and the changes that have happened to them, reflect the history of the city. Today, the landscape for unions, like in years past, is not without its issues.

“There is a continuing effort to take the political power out of unions across the country,” said Barbara Schroeder, member of Teamsters, Local 667. “However, the Teamsters union has been active for so many years, that I feel that it would take a mountain to move us.” Indeed, the Teamsters’ tagline is “North America’s Strongest Union.”

Some unions have come and gone, like the International Typographical Union. Others, like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Teamsters, and AFSCME, are still robust. The story of unions in Memphis is one of buildings preserved, buildings repurposed, and buildings torn down.

As unions formed in Memphis, they sought a consistent place to meet. For about five decades, unions like the Iron Workers union and Steamfitters Union had meetings at the Memphis Labor Temple, located on 571 Beale Street.

The Labor Temple itself was the former location of the Higbee School, an all-girls school, which opened in the late 19th Century and closed in 1910. It became the Labor Temple in the 1920s and was headquarters to a number of Memphis unions before it was torn down in 1972.

In the early 1970s, the Memphis AFL-CIO Building Association purchased property at 2881 Lamar, which became the new union headquarters. The Memphis AFL-CIO Labor Council was granted a charter in 1957 and became the umbrella organization for 115 local union organizations.

The Lamar location has a backstory as well. Before it was the union headquarters, the Lamar site was the location of an amusement park and skating rink called Rainbow Lake, which opened in 1936 and closed in 1958. However, three years later, the Lamar building suffered a great deal of damage due to a fire. In 1979, the Memphis AFL-CIO Building Association filed a bankruptcy petition and the location was shuttered.

One union building that has not been torn down is the headquarters of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 474. IBEW was established in Memphis in 1906. The union moved into its headquarters at 1870 Madison Avenue in 1942. The building is still in operation.

Like the now-demolished former labor headquarters on Beale and Lamar, the IBEW building has a backstory. Before hosting the IBEW, the building on Madison, which was built in 1890, was the home to the Miller School, an all-boys school that opened in 1910 and closed a few years later.

“We bought the building from Bridgeforth Industries,” said Paul Shaeffer, business manager of IBEW. “As far as we can tell, they manufactured tents.”

Iron Workers Union, Local 167, was founded in Memphis in 1915. Their headquarters were at the Memphis Labor Temple on Beale Street for decades, from the 1920s until 1972. When that building was demolished, the union headquarters moved to the Lamar site.

Now, they are located near Lamar and American Way, on Lindawood, and have been there since 1989. The Lindawood building was constructed in 1973 in order to be the site of their apprenticeship training program.

No matter the location of their headquarters, Local 167 has constructed several key components of the Memphis landscape. They helped build the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge, the Mid-South Coliseum, the Pyramid, and the Hernando de Soto Bridge. They also helped transform the Pyramid into Bass Pro Shop.

“We did repair work at Bass Pro,” said Mike Scoggins, business manager and graduate of the Iron Worker’s apprenticeship program. “We built the elevator tower and the observation deck.”

Read more articles by Tamara Williamson.

Tamara is a native Memphian and has a B.A. and M.A. from UT Knoxville. She has previously written guest posts for I Love Memphis blog. 
Signup for Email Alerts