Striking police and firemen voted yesterday to approve a two-year contract and end one of the most bitter labor disputes in this city's history.
The jubilance turned to momentary confusion and dismay when Mayor Wyeth Chandler announced that he was dissatisfied with the contract and might not approve it, but he did.
As a result, most of the 1,100 policemen and 1,400 firemen are expected to be back on duty starting today. A curfew that strapped nightlife for a week, costing thousands in restaurant and entertainment receipts, was lifted. And the 1,500 National Guardsmen who have policed the city were expected to leave soon.
Police will get a 6.1 percent raise retroactive to July 5, and an added $22.50 a month starting next April. Firemen will get 6 percent retroactive to July 5 and an added $30 a month starting next April. Both departments may be given a 7.5 raise in October 1979 if a survey justifies it.
Though they went on strike in violation of court orders and state law, and were all "fired" by Chandler, they will be reinstated without reprisals. Only those found guilty of felonies - violence, or destruction of city property will lose their jobs.
The police and fire departments here have been regarded as among the toughest and the best in the nation. And because of the role played by both departments during riots in 1968 following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., they were also considered as among the most "conservative."
"Just the idea that white cops would strike is something that you never would have thought of 10 years ago," said John Gray, a young, black General Motors Corp. executive living here. "I mean, these were the same people who were beating us in the head when King came down here in 1968 to help the sanitation workers start a union. It just blows my mind that whites are involved in something like this."
However, members of the predominantly white police and fire unions repeatedly said in conversations with reporters that such statements were unfair. Race had nothing to do with the strike, they said. Indeed, they and others pointed out, the strike was one of the few occasions in this still racially divided city where blacks and whites fought together for the same thing.
"We were all brothers on this one," said a white policeman who requested anonymity. "We were all niggers," he said.
Many people here believe the strike was linked as much to pride, bluster and short-circuited expectations as to wages, working conditions and benefits.
Lewis R. Donelson, prominent white attorney and civic leader, believes that both the fire and police unions were "trying to prove themselves, trying to show that they could not be pushed around." But they were trying to make their point in the wrong place, he said.
"These people had never been in labor negotiations before," he said of the unions' leadership. "They lacked the ability to deal with the situation. They did not understand that when you entered negotiations, you push, you curse, you call each other names, but you forget about all of that after the negotiations end. Instead, they became angry and took it personally and felt that they had to strike back."
As a result, said Donelson, when Chandler announced last week that he would attempt to withdraw city recognition from the two striking unions, the unions responded by saying they would push for a city-wide work stoppage involving public employees as well as some 60,000 unionized workers in the city's private sector.
Yesterday's conflict between Chandler and the union members after they had approved the contract was another example of the one-upmanship which characterized the strike, Donelson said.
"It was a lot of bluster. It was a bluff - one side refusing to back down for the other even though they weren't that far apart on the real issues," he said.
Donelson dismissed the contention of white police and firemen who said that the strike was a battle between the haves and the have nots.
"This whole business about 'class' is totally imagined. They did not start thinking about 'class' until they went out on strike last week," said Donelson.
He said this city of 650,000 will remain racially divided for "many generations to come," and the police and fire departments will be affected by those divisions as long as they exist.
Memphis still has many of the problems that have traditionally characterized black-white life in the South. There are numerous charges of housing discrimination, job discrimination and police brutality. There is very little public socializing between blacks and whites. Most of the city's 38.9 percent black population lives at or below the poverty level.
"The truth of it is that the redneck white policeman is the most anti-black person in this town. There is police brutality in the police department. And, honestly, if I were mayor I don't believe there's a thing I could do to stop it," Donelson said.
Donelson bases much of the racial division on economics. For example, he pointed out that most of the city's estimated 18,100 unemployed persons (5.5 percent) are in the black community. "Many of our blacks are poorly trained because they have come here from the surrounding farms. They're not well equipped to cope with the situation here and as a result they are in serious poverty."
Yet, Donelson agreed that the strike by the police and firemen probably would not have occurred had it not been for the organization of the predominantly black 1,300-member sanitation workers union in 1968.
"The policemen and the firemen here saw what they [the sanitation workers] were getting and decided that they could do the same thing," he said.
The man who started the sanitation workers is the Rev. James Smith, who is still regarded as one of the foremost labor organizers and negotiators here.
Smith said yesterday that he saw no direct parallel between what occurred in 1968 and the strike of police and firemen.
"When we started organizing the sanitation workers there was no union, period," he said. "Back then we were not even fighting for wages and other benefits, we were just fighting for simple dignity. We went on strike because of the conditions that prevented us from being somebody."
Smith said that during the police and firemen's strike he was approached on numerous occasions by whites who said they now understood what transpired in 1968.
Smith also said he did not think that the back-white unity shown during the latest strike would last. "I don't think Lewis [Donelson] is a realist. I don't think the strike has erased the racial problems within the police or the fire department. Those problems will be there when they return to work," he said.