“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

Martin Luther King ,jr.

On January 17th, 2011, the nation will honor the birthday of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.  What will this day truly mean to us?  As union, we should remember, extol and inform the membership of the service he gave to union members. He understood that a living wage was a civil right.

During the 1960s, King had committed himself to building a bridge between the civil rights and labor movements.  He was invited to address the AFL-CIO’s annual convention in 1961, King observed that “the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.”

In 1968, King and the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] organized the “Poor People’s Campaign” to address issues of economic injustice.  This campaign culminated in a march on Washington, D.C. demanding economic aid to the poorest communities of the  nation.  King traveled around the  country assembling a multiracial coalition of activist for the poor that would march on Washington and engage in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol until Congress created a bill of rights for poor Americans.

Many Americans today know that Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, but few know why he was there.

Several major unions, including the United Auto Workers and the International Ladies Garment Workers, supported the civil rights groups, their sit-ins, freedom rides and helped organize the famous 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.  The Memphis’ civil rights and union leaders invited King to their city to help draw national attention to the garbage strike.

The strike began over the mistreatment of 22 sewer workers who reported for work on January 31, 1968, and were sent home when it began raining.  White employees were not sent home.  When the rain stopped after an hour or so, they continued to work and were paid for the full day, while the black workers lost a day’s pay.  The next day, two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning city garbage truck compressor.  The reason the workers were crushed, was because they had to ride the back of the truck.  As African-Americans, they were not allowed to sit in the truck.

These two incidents were typical representations of the workers’ long-standing grievances.  Wages averaged about $1.70 per hour.  40% of the workers also qualified for welfare to supplement their poverty-level salaries. There were no  health care benefits, pensions, or vacations.  They worked in filthy conditions, and lacked the basics, like a place to eat and shower.  They were required to haul leaky garbage cans that spilled maggots and debris on them.  White supervisors called them “boy” and arbitrarily sent them home without pay for minor violations that they overlooked when white workers did the same thing.

On February 12, 1,300 black sanitation workers walked off their jobs, demanding that the city recognize their union (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFSCME) and negotiate to resolve their grievances.  They also demanded a pay increase to $2.35 an hour, overtime pay, and merit promotions without regard to race.

The city, while using non-union workers and supervisors to pick up garbage downtown, from hospitals, and in residential areas, still could not keep up with garbage pick up and it resulted in thousands of tons of backed up garbage.   The NAACP sponsored all-night vigils and pickets at City Hall.  On February 23, 1,500 people — strikers and their supporters — packed City Hall chambers, but the all-white city council voted to back the mayor’s refusal to recognize the union.

Local ministers formed a citywide group to support the strikers.  500 white labor unionists from Memphis and other Tennessee cities joined black ministers and sanitation workers in their daily march downtown.

On several occasions, the police attacked the strikers with clubs and mace.  They  even arrested strike leaders for jaywalking.  On March 5, 117 strikers and supporters were arrested for sitting in at city hall.  Six days later, hundreds of students skipped high school to participate in a march led by black ministers.  Two students were arrested.

The protest was escalating, yet the city establishment dug in its heels.  Mayor Loeb and City Attorney Frank B. Gianotti convinced a local judge to issue an injunction prohibiting the strike and picketing.  The union and its supporters  refused to end their protests.  Several union leaders — AFSCME’s international president Jerry Wurf, Local 1733 President T.O. Jones, and national staffers William Lucy and P. J. Ciampa — were cited for contempt, sentenced to 10 days in jail, fined $50, and freed pending appeal.

With tensions rising and no compromise in sight, local ministers and AFSCME invited Dr. King to Memphis to stimulate the local movement, lift the strikers’ dwindling spirits, and encourage them to remain nonviolent.  March 18, King spoke at a rally attended by 17,000 people calling for a citywide march. His speech triggered national media attention, and became the catalyst for the rest of the labor movement to expand its support for the strikers.

King returned to Memphis on Thursday, March 28, to lead the march.  The police moved into crowds with night sticks, mace, tear gas, and gunfire.  The police arrested 280 people, 60 were injured and a 16-year-old boy, Larry Payne, was shot to death.  The state legislature authorized a 7 p.m. curfew and 4,000 National Guardsmen moved in.  The next day, 300 sanitation workers and supporters marched peacefully and silently to City Hall — escorted by five armored personnel carriers, five jeeps, three large military trucks, and dozens of Guardsmen with bayonets fixed.  President Lyndon Johnson and AFL-CIO President George Meany offered their help in resolving the dispute, but Mayor Loeb turned them down.

King then went to Washington D.C. and gave a speech on March 31, 1968 at the National Cathedral **, before returning to Memphis on Wednesday, April 3 rd to address a rally to pressure city officials to negotiate a compromise solution to the strike. That night, at the Mason Temple — packed with over 10,000 black workers and residents, ministers, white union members, white liberals, and students — King delivered what would turn out to be his last speech***. He emphasized the linked fate of the civil rights and labor movements:

Memphis Negroes are almost entirely a working people. Our needs are identical with labor’s needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.



The next day, James Earl Ray assassinated King as he stood on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Hotel.

As Time magazine noted at the time: “Ironically, it was the violence of Martin Luther King’s death rather than the nonviolence of his methods that ultimately broke the city’s resistance” and led to the strike settlement.  President Johnson ordered federal troops to Memphis and instructed Undersecretary of Labor James Reynolds to mediate the conflict and settle the strike.  The following week, Coretta Scott King, and dozens of national figures led a peaceful memorial march through downtown Memphis in tribute to Dr. King and in support of the strike.  Local business leaders, tired of the boycott and demonstrations, urged Loeb to settle with the strikers.  On April 16, union leaders and city officials reached an agreement.  The city council passed a resolution recognizing the union.  The contract included union dues check-off, a grievance procedure, and wage increases of 10 cents per hour, starting May 1 and another five cents in September.  Members of AFSCME Local 1733 approved the agreement and unanimously ended their strike.

Labor has now become the new Negro exiled in his own land, living  in “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift“.  But “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.  And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.  A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

Labor has now been given that promissory note, that bad check that came back marked “insufficient funds”.  We are now up against a corporate controlled government who uses its’ owned media  to drip from its’ lips the words “interposition” and “nullification”.  But we must still have that hope, that faith, that dream.

Dr. King would want us to honor his memory by continuing the struggle for human dignity, workers’ rights, living wages and social justice everywhere!

Penny McQuaig


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