Willie Julian Usery, Jr. was born December 21, 1923 in Hardwick, Georgia. Known as W.J. and, later, Bill, Usery was educated at Georgia Military College in Milledgeville from 1938 to 1941. After graduation, Usery became a machinist at the naval shipyards in Brunswick, Georgia as the country prepared for World War II. He married Gussie Mae Smith in 1942.
In 1943, Usery enlisted in the United States Navy and became an underwater welder on a repair ship in the Pacific. After his enlistment ended, Usery returned to Georgia to work as a maintenence machinist for Armstrong Cork Company in Macon while also attending Mercer University. On March 1, 1952, while working at Armstrong Cork Company, Usery co-found Local Lodge 8 of the International Association of Machinists, AFL-CIO (IAM). Over the years, he served in various postions in the union, eventually becoming the president of the local lodge. He also served as the IAM's special representative at the U.S. Air Force Cap Canaveral Air Force Missile Test Center (AFMTC). In 1956, Usery retired from his job at Armstrong Cork to become a Grand Lodge Representative for the IAM. In 1961, while working in this position, he became the union representative on the President's Missile Sites Labor Commission. Usery was responsible for leading labor negotiations and helping administer and service union contracts at Cape Canaveral AFMTC, in the Kennedy Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center Manned Spacecraft Center. The IAM named Usery the labor management council at the space center in 1967, and he became the council's chair in 1968.
In Feburary 1969, President Richard Nixon nominated Usery to be the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Labor Management Relations. In this capacity, he oversaw the implementation and enforcement of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act. He also helped write Executive Order 11491, which gave union organizing rights to two million federal government workers and established collective bargaining, as well as grievance and dispute resolution procedures.
During his tenure at the U.S. Department of Labor, Usery was instumental in averting several large strikes. Through round the clock negotitations, he helped avoid a nationwide strike in 1969 by the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen that would have crippled the country's economy. Usery not only helped resolve disputes regarding the railway, he also mediated potential strikes by the Airline Clerks and the United Transportation Union.
Some strikes could not be avoided. Usery was part of the team tasked with breaking the National Postal Service strike in 1970. Resolved in just two weeks, the negotiations led to the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 and the formation of the American Postal Workers Union.
In 1973, President Nixon appointed Usery to be Director of Mediation and Concilliation Service. A few months later, he was offered a position with the AFL-CIO but turned it down, remaining loyal to Nixon. As a reward, Usery was appointed to be a Special Assitant to the President for Labor-Management Affairs in January 1974. In this capacity, Usery became the President's point man in labor disputes that might have economic impact. Usery continued in this position, being re-appointed to it by President Ford until 1976.
In 1976, President Ford appointed Usery as Secretary of Labor. Ford's term expired in January 1977, marking the end of Usery's public service career. Next, he founded his own company, Bill Usery Associaties, Inc., a consulting firm for labor relations.
In 1983, Usery was part of negotiations between the United Auto Workers, General Motors, and Toyota Motor Corporation. These talks led to the establishment of of a joint corporation called The New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI). Usery was able to guide these corporations to create a first-of-its-kind labor agreement involving a multinational corporation operating a factory in California.
That same year, Usery also mediated an education workers' strike in Chicago involving 38,000 educators.
In 1985, Usery founded and financed the Bill Usery Labor Relations Foundation to assist labor relations in Russia. During his time in the private sphere, Usery also served on several commissions. The Coal Commission was put together to help mediate a dispute between the United Mine Workers and Coal companies. Then-Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole asked Usery to mediate , and as a result of the negotiations, the the Coal Act of 1992 was passed to provide better health care benefits to retirees as the coal comapanies merged. From 1995-1993, Usery was alos a part of the Commisson on the Future of Worker-Management Realtions, also known as The Dunlop Commission. In 1994, Usery broke Major League Baseball Strike on appointment from President Bill Clinton.
In honor of Usery, Georgia State University created the W.J. Usery Jr. Center for the Workplace. The center was devoted to advising companies on dealing with disputes and studying cooperative labor-management relations. Usery would dedicate his time to it from 2000 until 2010, when the center closed. In 2004, GSU established the WIlliam J. Usery Jr. Chair of the American Workplace in his honor, and in 2010, Georgia Military College put his name on a new building, William J. Usery Hall.
In 2006, after the death of his first wife of 53 years, Usery remarried Frances Pardee. Usery passed away December 10, 2016 in Eatonton, Georgia. He was just eleven days away from his 93rd birthday.