Ralph Mears oral history interview, October 5 and 22, 2010
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Scope and Contents
Interviewed by Traci Drummond: Meers begins the interview by reminiscing fondly of growing up in rural Georgia to a farmer and sawmiller father and a boarder and homemaker mother. He describes in depth his first experiences and culture shock in moving to a boarding house in Atlanta and beginning work at the Atlanta Paper Company. Though he was initially pleased with the APC, he noticed the anti-union sentiment pervading the management when organizers began circulating information and discussing unionization. Much to his dismay, the company often portrayed organizers as “thugs and communists”; through this, he found the inspiration to become actively involved in the organization and election of the workers. He describes the negative reaction of the company and struggle to continue organization, with the help of the AFL-CIO, finally succeeding in 1959. He fondly speaks of his wife, daughters, and personal involvement as a parishioner of a local church and how this perspective helped him to maintain strength during hard times in working to advance the causes of the men and women he represented. He proudly recalls his very active participation in all union activities and committees in the many different roles that he has played over the years. He also elaborates on the experiences, training, and education which played an extremely important part in his growing leadership role. Throughout the interview, Meers talks frankly about the racial inequities of the time and his own experiences in trying to advocate reforms and defend his friends and colleagues in many of the places he visited, stating simply, “I did it, because it was the right thing to do.” He describes withstanding both internal pressures, from fellow members and other unions, and external pressures, from companies and unsympathetic organizations and parties, during his years pushing for a more workers’ rights, safer workplaces, and a stronger union, including the establishment of a Health and Welfare Trust Fund in 1973. He explains his involvement in the Atlanta Machine Workers strike in 1966 (and the resulting creation of a Local defense fund and partnership with the Teamsters), the wildcat strike of 1972, the Mead strike of 1981, the Quality Park Envelope Company strike in 1982, among others, and the parts played by the October League, the Black Panthers, the KKK, Maynard Jackson, Hosea Williams, Martin Luther King, Sr., and many unnamed arbitrators, attorneys, and workers, as well as local and corporate management and representatives. Additionally, he details the development of the union and establishment of local offices across the southeast. In the second part of the interview, Meers examines his decision to run against James Norton as International President and the resulting internal strife and divisions. He discusses how he successfully managed this conflict while maintaining the support of his membership in the Local, including mediation attempts and civil trials. Meers also discusses his positive feelings on the recent merger with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Meers wraps up the session with his thoughts on the progress of the labor movement as a whole and his proudest moments serving it. Unions Represented: Graphics Communication Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 527S; previously Graphic Communications International Union; previously Printing and Graphic Communications; previously Printing Specialties and Paper Products.
- Creation: October 5 and 22, 2010
- Meers, Ralph (Interviewee, Person)
Restrictions on Access
Available in Reading Room and online
Ralph Meers was born in rural Draketown, Georgia, on November 28, 1939 to Forrest T. Meers and Myrtle Beatrice Thomason Meers. In January of 1957, he dropped out of the twelfth grade to work at a wholesale grocer in Rockmart, Georgia, to support his family members, who had fallen into a difficult financial situation. Shortly thereafter, with encouragement from a friend’s father, Meers applied for a job at the Atlanta Paper Company. Near the end of the 1957, various individuals within the company began to push for organization. After being offered several raises to thwart the attempts at organization, Meers joined in the organization efforts, eventually succeeding in 1959. Meers married his wife, Sarah Francis, on August 8, 1958, fathering three daughters with her. Recognizing the importance of education, he earned a GED in the same year. Meers was extremely active in the union, eventually replacing Charlie Moss as shop steward in 1962. Just two years later, Meers overtook Moss as President of the Local by just a single vote. In 1966, Meers participated in his first union-sanctioned strike with the Atlanta Machine Workers. Because of that struggle, Meers advanced a resolution at a national convention in 1968 to increase dues for the creation of a defense fund. Though unsuccessful in his efforts, Meers triumphed in creating a defense fund on the Local level. In his role as President of the Local, Meers was actively involved in the wildcat strike at the Mead Corporation in 1972. Meers applied for a position with the Federal Mediation Affiliation Service, deciding against it after envisioning a greater purpose and role for the Local; from this vision, Meers established the Health and Welfare Trust Fund in 1973 and a supplemental pension 401(k) plan in 1983. Meers was also intimately involved with the strikes in 1979 and 1981 against the Mead Corporation and in 1982 against the Quality Park Envelope Company. In 1985, he was named Labor Leader of the year. Between 1991 and 1992, Meers unsuccessfully ran against the International President of the Graphic Communications Conference, James Norton, between 1991 and 1992, creating a long-lasting internal conflict that was finally resolved with George Tedeski’s successful bid for the same position.
2 Item(s) (audio (1:46:17 duration) transcript (133 pages))
Language of Materials
From the Collection: English