Memphis to Madison
Forty-three years ago, 1,300 sanitation workers took to the streets in Memphis, Tenn., in a historic campaign for dignity and the right to collective bargaining. In addition to proper wages and benefits, they fought the city for recognition of their union, AFSCME Local 1733. After a two-month strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis to join the battle, they won. But the cost was great: Dr. King was gunned down by an assassin, shaming the city into settling the strike.
Demonstrating solidarity between the labor and civil rights movements that is rooted in the Memphis strike, AFSCME International Sec.-Treas. Lee A. Saunders, civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers International, have been touring the country to bring attention to the effort of corporate-backed politicians to dismantle the middle class.
“I AM A MAN,” the iconic sign proudly held aloft by the 1968 strikers, has been augmented by a new slogan, shouted by thousands of demonstrators who have taken to the streets in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states where basic worker rights are under attack: “This is what democracy looks like!”
The 1968 fight that became Dr. King’s last campaign for justice is an ongoing war for the rights of workers against corporate interests and the lawmakers who do their bidding. It is a Main Street movement to counter the Wall Street tycoons who want to divide the middle class by setting one group of workers against another.
To win this war to preserve the middle class, we need to learn the lesson of the sanitation workers’ strike. “If it hadn’t been for unity” of the workers, they wouldn’t have won, says Alvin Turner, one of eight sanitation workers who attended a U.S. Depart-ment of Labor ceremony in May to induct the 1,300 sanitation workers into the Labor Hall of Fame.
This is a war we will win — as those brave Memphis workers won — because we will pull together like never before.