Two months ago in this space I wrote about heroism, respect and the deaths that happen during strikes. This month marks a milestone of another death during a strike, also a struggle for respect, one that became an historic event.
Forty years ago, on April 4, 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
Dr. King had just entered a new phase in the Poor People’s Campaign. He was in Memphis to lead a march for the striking sanitation workers trying to complete their union organizing campaign and get their first contract. The first Memphis union march King participated in three weeks earlier had quickly become violent and King was immediately whisked away — the first time he had ever quit a march.
It was four and a half years since the 1963 March on Washington where he made his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. Memphis was to be the first test of the civil rights campaign’s non-violent civil disobedience and community mobilization tactics linked to a labor struggle in the South. He was determined to return to Memphis and teach nonviolent resistance principles in Memphis and hold another march all the while keeping the peace.
That would prove too much for those dedicated to white supremacy.
They believed that if black workers successfully organized into unions in the South, then white economic supremacy would be over. King had to be stopped.
Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign had, up to that time, welcomed labor support that had been coming for years in the form of money and bodies going to nonviolent actions. Back then, King had not yet been called upon to merge struggles in a fight with power for the respect and dignity afforded workers by a union contract. The mayor of Memphis at the time wanted to “fire all the walking buzzards” for refusing to work. In response the workers carried signs saying “I Am A Man.”
Union organizing is always about demanding respect. Memphis was a stark example of this. In the words of the time, those workers were struggling to become known as garbage men instead of trash boys. Memphis workers went on strike during their organizing campaign.
I found the following description of the sanitation workers’ struggle, online. It comes from the Walter Reuther Archives at Wayne State University. The story is striking:
“On a rainy February afternoon, two black sanitation workers sat inside the back of a garbage truck to stay dry. Old and poorly maintained, an electrical short in its wiring caused the compressor to start running, and Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death. The Memphis Sanitation Department gave the families of each worker a month’s pay plus $500 for funeral expenses. No city official attended the funerals and no further compensation was extended.
“On the evening of Feb. 11, T.O. Jones, president of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), held a meeting with sanitation workers to discuss the recent deaths, partial pay on rainy days and safety conditions. They ultimately decided that enough was enough and voted to strike. Taylor Rogers, an organizer with Local 1733 said, ‘If you bend your back, people can ride it. But if you stand up straight, people can’t ride your back. And that’s what we did. We stood up straight.’”
The workers determined they would demand a 10 percent raise, union recognition, a union shop clause and an end to all discriminatory rules in the department.
In a speech right before he was killed, Dr. King ended his remarks with these eerily prescient words:
“Now we’re going to march again. And force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue. And we’ve got to say to the nation: we know it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The following afternoon at 6:03 p.m., Dr King lay dying on the balcony of his motel room, felled by a racist assassin’s bullet. He was 39.
The march he planned to lead in Memphis was delayed for his funeral.
The goal of the march was to urge completion of the organizing project by achieving a signed contract for the sanitation workers. The march did take place 10 days later and was joined by thousands. Two days later the city of Memphis agreed to a contract with AFSCME Local 733 for the sanitation workers giving them a 9.4 percent raise, union recognition, a union security clause, written agreement on all other current conditions and an end to discriminatory practices in the sanitation department.
A study released this year by economists at the Center for Policy Analysis concluded that over the 35-year period studied, unions that ally themselves with social causes make larger economic gains at the bargaining table than unions whose sole focus is on the narrow economics of bargaining. The study will no doubt have its detractors but it confirms something known deep down by every progressive labor leader for the last 50 years. The more friends and allies you bring to a fight the better the odds of success.
Every man and woman in a leadership role in the labor movement knows that freedom is bound up tight with economics. The economics of the working family form the foundations of whether we will have freedom in our free country. It’s our history.
We have a deep loyalty to those moral principles which guide us. We are honored to count ourselves amongst the thousands of men and women in the labor movement who have dedicated their lives to defending the right to have a good job, and receive adequate medical care. We dedicate ourselves to achieving protection from dire poverty in old age, and during periods of sickness, accident or unemployment, and we are dedicated to defending the right of every child and worker to get a good education and live free of fear and prejudice with our families in decent homes.
Tragic events, deaths during strikes, shape this determination. It is good to recall them.