1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers, Newest Members of the Labor Hall of Fame

Filed in Safety, Workplace Rights by on April 29, 2011 0 Comments

As Labor Secretary, I am proud to work in a building that houses the Labor Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame serves a reminder not just of our history … but also of our continuing responsibility to the American worker. It is a place where we can learn from our past and draw strength for a better future, even in the hardest times.

Many Americans know Dr. King’s famous speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”  They know we lost one of our nation’s great leaders for justice in Memphis. But many do not know why he was there, or who he was marching with—sanitation workers who said, “Enough is enough.”

So what was at stake in Memphis? Let me quote Dr. King himself: “Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, it has dignity. And it has worth. It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”

The story of the sanitation workers deserves to be retold.  In February of 1968, this group of ordinary American workers took an extraordinary stand for workplace justice. It was a century after emancipation, but the shameful Jim Crow era was alive and well. In Memphis, African-Americans were shut out of jobs that paid an honest wage. For many black men, sanitation work was the only job they could get. They did the work, and they did it proudly.

The working conditions were hard. And they were unsafe. When the sanitation workers tried to organize to improve their working conditions, they were ignored. When they kept trying, they were attacked and brutalized. So they went on strike.

They took a stand for human dignity with four simple words: “I AM A MAN.”

Memphis Sanitation Workers strike of 1968

The strike began after two of the sanitation workers were crushed to death in a garbage packer. Their violent deaths were little noticed by most of the city. So the sanitation workers went home to their kitchen tables, and they told their families why they must demand a seat at the bargaining table.

They fought a mayor who said, “I don’t have to bargain with you. I don’t have to give you a seat at the table. You are public sector workers—and you don’t have that right.”
But the Memphis sanitation workers would not give up. They had to overcome death threats. They had to overcome police brutality and the National Guard. They had to overcome Dr. King’s death. They had to overcome a lot. But they did overcome. After 63 days of protests, the Memphis workers finally won their union. They finally got their raise.

Through everything, they stayed true to their non-violent philosophy. In the days after Dr. King’s death, the sanitation workers went forward with their march. And, yes, it was a peaceful march. Those workers set an example for all of us that day. That’s why I’m so proud to induct them into the Labor Hall of Fame today.

Today, they join a group of trailblazers that include heroes like Cesar Chavez, Frances Perkins, Mother Jones, Samuel Gompers, and A. Philip Randolph. We have famous men and women in our Hall of Fame. But by honoring this group of rank-and-file workers, we reaffirm that that it takes many kinds of leaders to shape history.

We honor the Memphis sanitation workers for their bravery and sacrifice in a time of great difficulty. It’s an important time to do so, because today—in our time—the dignity of public workers is still under attack. There’s no question: We’ve come a long way. But we still have a long way to go.

Too often today, when workers come together to form a union, they are intimidated, harassed, even fired. Workers across America—public and private sector workers—are carrying on the struggle that began in Memphis. I want to commend all of our union brothers and sisters for carrying the torch today.

Today, we honor the heroes of Memphis. We honor our history and we recommit ourselves to stand with workers in our time.

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