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I Am A Man

By Lisa Kelly & Jon Melegrito

In 1968, the labor movement and the civil rights movement came together to demand basic rights and respect for all working men and women. The lessons and legacy of the sanitation workers' strike in Memphis continue to inform and inspire workers in their struggle to gain a voice at work.

Forty years ago, on April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I've Been to the Mountaintop” speech—the last formal remarks he would give before being gunned down the following day.

“We were being mistreated, underpaid and overworked.”
— Taylor Rogers, former sanitation worker and striker

On that night, King addressed the striking sanitation workers and their supporters at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn. The men had walked off the job 51 days earlier over demands for higher wages, dues check-off, time-and-a-half for overtime, safety measures and recognition of their union: AFSCME Local 1733.

But the workers' formal demands represented just part of what they wanted to accomplish. The real battle was over dignity and respect.

Difficult, Dirty Work

In the 1960s, job opportunities were scarce for African-American men living in Memphis and the choice to haul the trash of others was a decision of last resort. The work was smelly, dangerous and back-breaking. Also, the wages were so low—$1.60 an hour for those who loaded the trash, and $1.90 an hour for those who drove the trucks—that many relied on welfare and Food Stamps to support their families.

Despite their age and the obvious fact that they were husbands, fathers and full-time workers, the men—like many African-American males of their generation—also endured being called “boy” by whites, including their supervisors.

“AFSCME is still fighting for better lives for the working families of Memphis and we are still committed to Dr. King's dream for our nation and the world.”
— President McEntee

As former sanitation worker and striker Taylor Rogers said in January during a roundtable discussion convened in Memphis to mark King's birthday and the strike's 40th anniversary: “We were being mistreated, underpaid and overworked.” Rogers described how the workers carried 50-gallon drums of trash on their heads as moisture leaked all over them from holes in the tubs.

During the roundtable, J.D. Trotter remembered this: “We had nowhere to hang our clothes up. They had some bolts driven on the walls and you'd hang your clothes up on the wall. We came in one evening and the cleaners had cleaned up, put our clothes in the trash can and we didn't have clothes to put on.”

When it rained too hard for the men to work, their already abhorrent working conditions became even worse. The City of Memphis Department of Waste Management sent the African-American workers home without pay. White supervisors and workers were paid their full wages, no matter the weather.

The Final Straw

Thursday, Feb. 1 was one of those rainy days. Sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker sought refuge by balancing on a perch between a hydraulic ram that smashed the garbage and the truck's inside wall. Somehow, as the truck bounced along, the ram was activated and the two were crushed to death.

The horrific deaths galvanized their co-workers. Infuriated, union organizer T.O. Jones called the tragedy a “disgrace and a sin.” That's when the men decided to go on strike, igniting a movement that uniquely merged the labor, civil rights and religious communities.

“This day is over because you are men and must stand together as men and demand what you want.”
— Sec.-Treas. Bill Lucy addressing striking sanitation workers in 1968

The strike started on Feb. 12 and lasted two months. Along the way, workers and supporters marched daily, demanding union recognition from the mayor and city council. To protest treatment that reduced them to “things and tools rather than human beings,” the men wore signs that read: “I Am a Man,” a now famous slogan that still surfaces in civil rights campaigns.

On March 28, Dr. King led a march to city hall. A riot erupted and police attacked the demonstrators with Mace, tear gas, nightsticks and gunfire. That violence unleashed community outrage leading to a boycott of all downtown businesses. Within days, ministers, community activists and students marched alongside the striking sanitation workers. Sec.-Treas. Bill Lucy, then head of AFSCME's Legislation and Community Affairs Department, former International Field Direcor P.J. Ciampa, and former AFSCME Pres. Jerry Wurf, met with the mayor and assisted with negotiations that returned the strikers to work. The workers won collective bargaining rights and recognition of their union two weeks after King's murder.

Today's Struggles

Recognition of the union became a central issue in the strike. Its success inspired thousands of other employees from Memphis schools and hospitals to demand collective bargaining. Despite right-to-work laws and anti-union sentiment in the South, new AFSCME locals were organized in Baltimore and in Miami. Sanitation workers in this Florida city gained one of the best union contracts in the nation.

Community support for the Memphis strike—especially among churches, labor and civil right organizations—paved the way for successful coalition work for decades, including recent struggles. In 2001, community support bolstered the efforts of workers from the sanitation and street maintenance departments in Richmond, Ind. Their goal: getting the mayor to live up to a city ordinance that would make them a bargaining unit under Council 62. Religious groups and elected city officials championed the cause of 1,200 direct care workers who now have a voice at work at Lifespire Inc., a New York City social services agency. Broad community support is also sustaining the current organizing efforts of 10,000 employees at Chicago's Resurrection Health Care.