In Rare Move, Police Confirm ‘Blue Flu’

By Bill Dries

In the storied history of labor relations between City Hall and the rank and file of the Memphis Police Department, there is a standing rule about work slowdowns, sometimes referred to as “blue flu.”

The rule is similar to the rule in the movie “Fight Club.” No one talks about a work slowdown, at least by way of saying one is officially underway.

So when rumors of a sick-out scheduled to coincide with the Fourth of July holiday week surfaced last month following the Memphis City Council’s approval of a cut in health insurance benefits for retirees and current city employees, Memphis Police Association President Michael Williams was willing to react to the rumor. But he stopped short of endorsing it or condemning it.

Williams said such a reaction was understandable from public safety employees who put their lives on the line every day in their work.

“You’re going to make me have to think twice about running to the aid of citizens,” Williams said last month on the WKNO-TV program “Behind the Headlines,” in answering a general question about the benefits cuts. “Some people are going to say, ‘Well, that’s your job.’ It is my job and I’m going to do my job, but you are going to make me think about it.”

But when more than 400 cops called in sick for the holiday week and officers in investigative and special units such as the Organized Crime Unit were temporarily sent to uniform patrol as a result, Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong broke the customary silence.


“I will acknowledge that this is more than normal for us and it appears on the surface that we do have a work action,” he said Sunday, July 6, at the end of a busy weekend at City Hall involving contingency plans by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s administration if the sick-out continues or escalates.

“If any of those officers are found to be out of compliance with our sick policies, corrective actions will be taken,” Armstrong added, saying depending on the violations, the action could range from a verbal reprimand to firing someone.

Armstrong and Wharton acknowledged part of their time Saturday and Sunday was spent making contingency plans if the work action continues, accelerates or moves to some other form of action.

“We’ve not reached any conclusions about who may have orchestrated it. We do know this is not just happenstance. Three hundred officers don’t just accidentally call in at the same time. That defies common sense,” Wharton said when asked if he believed the Memphis Police Association was responsible for the blue flu. “We are looking at all alternatives, including greater use of working with the sheriff’s department, and whatever it takes to keep the folks safe in Memphis … we’re going to do it.”

The most common form of work action employed by police over the years has been leaving their blue patrol car lights flashing as they line up outside the Criminal Justice Center sally port to book suspects under arrest.

Police rank and file were believed to have staged a ticket-writing slowdown following the 4.6 percent pay cut all city employees took two fiscal years ago. And the numbers of tickets showed fewer were written. But police brass denied it was a deliberate slowdown and restated the standard denial that police are expected to issue a quota of tickets during a given period.

Before that, the most noticeable police work slowdown was in 1977, the year before the police and fire strikes. The 1977 contract negotiations between police and then-mayor Wyeth Chandler’s administration were tempestuous enough to set the stage for the strike the next year when contract negotiations were reopened.

In the year between that and the strike, the Memphis Police Association changed leadership from longtime leader Joe Kent, who became a state legislator, to David Baker, who had been the union’s first president when it was formed in 1973.

Baker led the union in the ultimate job action – a strike.

The city took the police and fire union leadership to Chancery Court to have the strike declared illegal.

For his part, Baker claimed he couldn’t be held liable because he and the union’s attorney, Russell X. Thompson, had advised the union’s members to return to work.

To make the point, Baker pointed to a confrontation he had during a late-night strike rally in the Civic Center Plaza, where he again advised the strikers to return to work. As he spoke from the back of a truck, Chris Cothran, part of the union’s leadership, pushed Baker in a brief melee that, decades later, some cops claim was staged and others claim was a real confrontation.