McGee, James Madison 1940–
James Madison McGee 1940–
Association executive, labor activist
James Madison McGee heads the oldest and largest independent black-led industrial labor union in the United States—the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees, NAPFE. Excluded from existing craft unions at the time, a group of black railway mail clerks formed the NAPFE in 1913 to secure the inclusion of blacks’ jobs with the railway mail service. The NAPFE grew throughout the decades as a predominantly African-American organization, never relying on funding from whites. NAPFE is the fourth largest union in the postal service, with 50,000 members in 10 districts and 141 locals in 37 states. Despite the majority African-American membership the NAPFE has remained open to all people of all races, genders, and religious faiths. Elected union president in 1989, McGee continues to uphold NAPFE’s mission of equality for all workers, battling against discrimination and unfair practices in the federal sector and the Postal Service.
McGee also serves as chief executive officer of the NAPFE Federal Credit Union and of the NAPFE 202 Housing Program, which provides housing for the elderly and handicapped. McGee’s concern for labor issues is not limited to the United States. He is North American vice president of the World Confederation of Labor, an international labor organization, and World Confederation of Labor representative to the United Nations.
James Madison McGee was born on December 22, 1940, in Nashville, Tennessee, to Raymond McGee Sr. and Coma Mai McGee, his role models. He lived in the atypical mixed section of South Nashville called Trimble Bottom. It was here, among this patchwork of black and white neighborhoods whose children played together and saw first-hand that the races could coexist, that McGee grew up, the youngest of seven children. Despite being poor, McGee said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography, “My family enjoyed a pretty good life. We didn’t know we were poor; we got what we needed. Yet we knew Jim Crow existed; the schools were still segregated.”
“The children who had a parent at the post office seemed to have everything they needed, in abundance,” McGee remembered. This image from his youth of a middle-class life within the context of the segregated South would later shape his decision to seek employment with the U.S. Post Office, and seed his rise through the ranks of NAPFE.
McGee attended Fisk University in for a year starting in 1959. He joined the Marine Corps in 1961 to serve in the Vietnam War. The racism McGee experienced in the military at Camp Lejeune and nearby Jacksonville, North Carolina, was the genesis of McGee’s life as an activist. Black servicemen would spend their pay in town but could not have credit at its stores or travel to some areas of the city. Seeing this, McGee and fellow marines decided to donate a portion of their $78.00 monthly salary to the NAACP. However, there was no means to get donations to the NAACP, their white paymaster informed them, as he returned their money. Prompted to action, McGee then decided, “If I couldn’t
At a Glance…
Born James Madison McGee on December 22, 1940, in Nashville, TN; married Mary Francis Wilkins; children: Andrea, LaSandra, James Jr. Education: Fisk University, T 959-60; Mid-S School of Electronics, diploma, 1968-70; Mason’s School of Business, diploma, accounting. Military Service: United States Marine Corps, 1961-65. Religion: Methodist
Career: NAPPE Local 410, Nashville, TN, political action chairman, 1967-68; NAPFE Local 410, Nashville, TN, treasurer, 1968-72; NAPFE Local 410, Nashville, TN, president, 1972-78; NAPFE District Four, Washington, DC, president, 1978-82; NAPFE, Washington, DC, national first vice president, 1982-89; NAPFE, Washington, DC, national president, 1989-; World Confederation of Labor, Brussels, Belgium, vice president, 1989-,
Selected memberships; National Black Leadership Roundtable; NAACP; Tennessee Voters Council, member, 1967-80.
Addresses; 0ffice-NAPFE, 1628 11th St. NW, Washington, DC 20001.
give it to the NAACP, I wouldn’t give it to anyone.” Other black servicemen on base followed his lead and began to boycott the businesses of Jacksonville. Their cause was aided by an unexpected source: To reduce tensions, a two-star general on base ordered Jacksonville off limits to all servicemen. Restricting 40,000 servicemen from spending their paychecks in Jacksonville had the desired effect; Jacksonville’s economy suffered, and over time the city changed. Blacks were able to get credit and shop where they pleased.
In Nashville on a cold January day in 1965, newly discharged from the service, a revealing encounter in a local pool hall crystallized McGee’s career options. Having left behind a pair of gloves his future wife had given him, McGee returned to the pool hall and found them gone. “I had left them for only a moment,” McGee told CBB. “When I returned no one knew anything. And these were supposed to be my friends.” He figured there were much better things to do with his life. Again he thought about the benefits and stability of employment at the post office.
The post office, McGee believed, would afford him a way to have the life he wanted. He remembered one neighbor whom he admired in particular wearing his postal uniform at school assemblies. “Many prominent blacks we knew worked at the post office. This influenced me greatly. I saw early on that they seemed to be well off. I didn’t think I could get rich working there, but I believed I’d be all right.” McGee decided he would take the entrance exam for the post office once it opened up, and take whatever job he could get in the meantime.
On December 2, 1965, the post office called, and McGee started work on the following Monday. On December 7, NAPFE, the only union open to blacks at the post office at the time, invited him to join. “There were people there who put their arms around you when you came into the union and taught you the ropes,” McGee told CBB. “I met my best friend there, Jimmy Brown. He encouraged me to attend union meetings. Eventually I discovered what I had always suspected: Blacks could indeed lead, as well as follow. Here was this organization that was 99 percent black and doing marvelous things. I started getting more involved and people started putting their arms around me again. They brought you along and told you when you were ready for office. I called them my ‘griots.’”
McGee knew he had found his niche. In 1968 he landed the treasurer’s spot at Nashville local 410. During this time McGee attended his first national convention in Norfolk, Virginia. It was here that McGee decided privately that he would run for national president of NAPFE; the year, he decided, would be 1990. McGee went on to become president of Local 410 in 1972. In 1978 he was elected president of District Four, comprising the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. In 1982, Robert L. White, incumbent national president of NAPFE, sensing McGee’s ambitions for the president’s office, suggested that McGee run for the position of national vice president. “I really didn’t want it, but it made sense, so in 1982 I ran and won.”
A rift among the membership and executive committee ensued in 1987, and McGee thought about returning to Nashville. That notion lasted only three days, however. Instead McGee told his supporters that he would run for the national presidency in November 1988. McGee lost the election in June of 1988, but the results seemed questionable. “There were things that were not right, so we went to the national convention in August of that year in Jackson, Mississippi, and filed appeals to contest the election, and for the first time in labor union history a national convention set aside seven contested positions in a union election,” McGee told CBB. A rerun was ordered in March of 1989 and McGee was the victor. But the transfer of authority would not be an easy one. The case went to court and only after a decision was rendered in his favor in October of 1989 was McGee seated as national president. He’s been there ever since.
In October of 2001, two postal workers in the Brentwood Post Office in Washington, DC, which processes mail for the U.S. Senate, died from exposure to Anthrax, a deadly bacteria. Many members of NAPFE were angered over the deaths and treatment they received from postal officials during this time. “It did have an impact on us,” McGee said. “We are still dealing with complaints stemming from this case. But we’re pretty capable of taking care of problems that affect our members. We do a good job of using statutory laws to protect the interests of our members.”
Just as McGee’s father followed the “specifications” of his own plumbing work, he also expected his children to meet what he called the “specifications of life.” Although McGee says he can’t translate this directive literally, he knew what his father meant. “The union,” he says, “taught me to leave a place better off than the way I found it. I’ve tried to live up to that.” Nashville Local 410 and District Four were both left with sizeable increases in membership roles and bank accounts.” As head of Local 410 he saw the organization through the purchase of its union headquarters. Leading NAPFE since 1989, McGee has skillfully steered his organization through court battles, financial crisis, changing technology, layoffs, the prospects of privatization and bioterrorism. Under McGee’s leadership, NAPFE has also established a Labor Management Institute at Howard University, with a $1.5 million dollar grant. McGee, it seems continues to heed his father’s advice.
National Alliance, October 1999, pp. 11-16.
Focus, June 2001, pp. 2-8.
“National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees (NAPFE),” Associations Unlimited, www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/AU (May 9, 2004).
“NAPFE,” National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees, www.napfe.com/NAPFEabout.asp (May 9, 2004).
“James Madison McGee,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (May 10, 2004).
“Officials’ Response to Anthrax Riles Workers,” Federal Times, www.federaltimes.com/postal/post102901 (May 29, 2004).
“Brentwood Postal Workers Push Lawsuit Over Anthrax,” The Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles (May 29, 2004).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with James M. McGee on May 26, 2004.
—Sharon Melson Fletcher
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