Week thirty-five  
Better Jobs:
The Strike for Better Working Conditions 

It was a stormy day, on  February 1, 1968  in Memphis when two African-American sanitation workers seeking refuge from the rain  were crushed in the malfunctioning trash compactor  of their garbage truck An e yewitness  to the deaths of  Robert Walker, 30, and Echol Cole, 36,  t old the Memphis Commercial Appeal ,  "I saw one of the men towards the edge. He almost made it out, but his clothing got caught on the compressor and the truck just swallowed him in."  1   Their deaths sparked the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike.

Because Walker and Cole made approximately $1.40 an hour, they were unable to afford life insurance. The City of Memphis gave the families one-month salary and $500 in compensation, which was not enough to cover burial expenses. The families were left destitute.2

Sadly,   the accident could have been avoided .  The same truck had been previously reported faulty.   Better working conditions became a focus for the Sanitation Workers Strike , along with equal pay, union recognition and the resounding mantra of respect, "I AM A MAN."

African American garbage collectors in Memphis, though extremely hazardous, often rode in the backs of garbage trucks for shelter.  Photo courtesy of Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Libraries, University of Memphis.

It was the tragic deaths of these two men and other work-related injuries and fatalities that led to the passing of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1971. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 1970, there were a reported 14,000 worker fatalities. Since the passage of the OSHA act, workplace injuries and deaths have declined from 11 per 100 workers in 1972, to 3.6 per 100 workers today.3

In 2017, almost 50 years later, a special grant of $50,000 to each living 1968 Sanitation Worker, and the Memphis City Council enhanced this to $70,000. Additionally, the NAACP honored the surviving 1968 Memphis sanitation workers with the Vanguard Image Award, an honor presented in recognition of the groundbreaking work that has increased understanding and awareness of racial and social issues.
The living Memphis sanitation workers being honored with the Vanguard Image Award by the NAACP at the National Civil Rights Museum on January 9, 2018. 
Photo courtesy of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
"Despite threats to their lives and livelihoods, the sanitation workers made the brave decision to strike, armed with the simple, powerful slogan, 'I Am a Man'," said Derrick Johnson, NAACP president and CEO. "They knew the urgency of their demand for dignity and justice, but little did they know how relevant their peaceful protest would remain come 2018. It is now up to us to confront modern-day challenges to civil rights with the same courage and determination... We are inspired by their individual and collective activism."4  

Let's create change by  participating in one or more of the action items below. 

1.   Honey, Michael K. Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin                                                     Luther King's Last Campaign. 2007.
2.   Memphis Commercial Appeal, Friday February 2, 1968. 
3.  Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)  https://www.osha.gov/ 


Fight for Change! 
  1. Know your rights and what you can do if you're being treated unfairly. Visit the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA)  website   for information on worker's rights, and info to file complaints or to locate an OSHA office. 
  2. Interested in joining a union or gaining knowledge on organizing? Check out the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees' (AFSCME) website for information on training and local chapters in your area. 
  3. February 12, 2018 marks 50 years since the Memphis sanitation workers went on strike, demanding better working conditions and better wages. In commemoration of the anniversary, join us in Memphis for AFSCME's "I AM 2018 50th Anniversary of Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike and March" on April 4. Be a part of all of the commemorative events in Memphis on April 2-4. Visit AFSCME's I AM 2018 site and our MLK50 site for more events and information. 

Dr. King Unites With Memphis Civil Rights Heroes: 
The 1968 Sanitation Workers 

(For Middle and High School Students)
Photo courtesy of dailynews.com

In 1968, Dr. King came to Memphis, to help with the Sanitation Workers Strike. The Memphis Sanitation Workers (or workers who collected the garbage) were underpaid, and didn't have uniforms or working equipment to do their jobs. Their pay was so low that even though they worked full-time, they still qualified for  welfare or government aid.
Acrylic painting of a Sanitation Worker
Artist: Anthony Armstrong 

Since they were not given uniforms, they had to wear their own clothes, which would get covered in juices from the trash. Bus drivers often would not let them the buses after working all day, because of the odor from the trash.

On February 1, 1968, two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, stood in the barrel of an old garbage truck, as they rode to the city dump at the end of a long day's work. It was raining that day, so the men got in the barrel of the truck to seek shelter. During the ride, the garbage truck malfunctioned and the  trash compactor  crushed and killed both men.  
Photo courtesy of the National Civil Rights Museum 

Twelve days later, 1,100 of the 1,300 garbage collectors went on strike (or stopped work) to demand uniforms, working equipment, and better pay. The Sanitation Strike demonstrated the sanitation worker's frustration with being mistreated, as workers', as men, and as pillars of the community.  T .O. Jones, a fellow garbage collector, led the  strike  and started organizing  with the Union and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). These protesters worked together to organize.  They marched, rallied, made demands at City Council meetings, and worked with the local African American churches to create change. Dr. King and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), brought national attention to the Sanitation Workers Strike.  Media coverage  allowed the nation to see the injustice happening in Memphis.

Dr. King at Mason Temple
Photo courtesy of Huffington Post 
On April 3, Dr. King gave his famous speech,  "I've Been to the  Mountaintop "at Mason Temple. Listen to an excerpt from "The Mountaintop Speech" or read the full speech here . The next day, on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was killed at the Lorraine Motel.

Photo courtesy of kingencycopedia.standford.edu
On April 8, Coretta Scott King and Ralph Abernathy led a silent march of
42,000 people to honor Dr. King.

The Strike ended on April 16, when the City Council agreed to meet the union's demands. This is a true story of courageous people who wanted change, came together to fight injustice, and won.

(For All Ages) 

Watch the  Striking Voices video at the Root.com.                                                                                       
Consider these questions and discuss the answers with family, classmates or friends:
  • Have you ever seen something that seemed unjust or unfair to a certain group of people? If so, would you be willing to "stand up" and change it?
  • What was it that seemed unjust or unfair? What action can you take to make a difference? 
(For Middle and High Schoolers)
Consider the following questions. Write down or discuss your answers with family, classmates or friends:
  • What are some of the reasons it would be difficult to go on strike? What are the consequences of continuing a strike for over eight weeks? What did the Sanitation workers have to lose? What did they have to gain?
  • Why was it so important that Dr. King came to Memphis during the Sanitation Strike?
  • How did Dr. King coming to participate in this protest show his courage?
  • What happens in a community when the trash is not picked up? Why might we refer to the Sanitation Workers as "heroes?"


Are you a relative of someone who participated in the sanitation strike? Did you participate? We want to hear from you and them. Share their story. 
Share your story.