W. J. “Bill” Usery Jr. became the first Georgian to serve as secretary of labor when U.S. president Gerald Ford appointed him to that position in 1976. During his illustrious career, Usery received five appointments, by both Democratic and Republican presidents, to serve the national interest in resolving labor-management disputes.
Early Life and Career
Willie Julian Usery Jr. was born on December 21, 1923, in Hardwick (Baldwin County). He attended Georgia Military College and Mercer University. From 1943 to 1946, he served aboard the Tutuila in the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet.
In 1948 Usery began working for the Armstrong Cork Company in Macon as a maintenance machinist and remained there until 1956. He joined the International Association of Machinists (IAM; later the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers), AFL-CIO Local 918; he then became a founding member of Local 8 and held a series of local union posts, including the presidency.
From 1956 to 1969, Usery served as an IAM Grand Lodge representative. His first assignment was as the IAM’s special representative at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Test Facilities in 1956. From 1961 to 1967, he was the union’s representative on the President’s Missile Sites Labor Committee at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. He was the coordinator for union activities at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. Usery also assisted in forming the Cape Kennedy Labor-Management Relations Council in 1967 and became its chairman in 1968.
Nixon and Ford Administrations
In 1969 U.S. president Richard Nixon appointed Usery as the assistant secretary of labor for labor-management relations. In 1970 Usery helped to resolve a postal strike by persuading Nixon to name a blue ribbon commission that was acceptable to both parties. From this commission grew the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, which officially created the U.S. Postal Service and gave its workers the right of collective bargaining.
Usery served as director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, 1973-74; special assistant to the president for labor-management affairs, 1974; and special assistant to the president for labor-management negotiations, 1975-77. On January 22, 1976, U.S. president Gerald Ford nominated Usery to be secretary of labor. In this position, he continued to use his mediation skills, preventing some disputes and resolving others, including the longest strike ever staged in the rubber industry and a potentially crippling trucking strike. Usery’s reputation for understanding real-world workplace issues and negotiations served him well during his year as secretary of labor.
Consulting and Mediation Work
After his term was over, Usery founded Bill Usery Associates Incorporated, a Washington-based firm specializing in promoting cooperative labor-management relations and innovative human resource strategies. Usery facilitated the negotiations between General Motors Corporation (GM) and Toyota Motor Corporation that established the New United Motor Manufacturing, Incorporated (NUMMI) in 1984. This first-ever joint venture between an American car company and a Japanese car company created more than 2,500 jobs at GM’s plant in Fremont, California.
From 1993 to 1995 Usery served on the Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations and was appointed by U.S. president Bill Clinton as special mediator for the major league baseball dispute. In 1997 Georgia State University established the W. J. Usery Jr. Center for the Workplace in his honor, with the mission of helping organizations “find innovative solutions to workplace problems and issues.” The center closed in early 2010.
Usery died on December 10, 2016 of heart failure in Eatonton. He was ninety-two.