The Memphis sanitation strike which began in Memphis on February 11, 1968 was characterized by protests of the Memphis sanitation workers against poor working conditions, discrimination, poor payment, lack of compensation for work-related injuries and lack of recognition for the worker’s union (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local-AFSCME). The strike expressed the discontent of the 1300 sanitation workers with the Memphis municipal.
The protests ended on April 16, 1968 after the municipal agreed to the demands of the workers. The protests came at a time when the Civil Rights movement was demanding for the civil rights of African Americans hence attracted the attention of the media, the public and the American political leadership. According to Honey (Honey, pg. 132), the struggle for freedom and equality in the society was considered to be vital by the movement. The workers participated in the protests through marches/demonstrations, city-wide boycotts and sit-ins.
Civil disobedience during the protests was reinforced by the presence and support of the protests by the civil rights movement leaders Reverend James Lawson and Martin Luther King Martin Luther King also made public his support for the strike during the April 3 speech that he gave before his assassination. The strike ended on April 16, 1968 after a settlement that led to wage increases and recognition of the AFSCME by the municipal. There are various features that made the Memphis sanitation strike a powerful social movement.
One feature was the presence of civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King. He was a very influential personality within the movement which demanded for the civil rights of African Americans. An article by AFSCME (AFSCME and Dr. King, 1968) on Martin Luther’s April 3 speech “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” which he gave in Mason Temple confirms his support for the protests. King called for justice and condemned poor treatment that black workers were receiving from the Memphis municipal.
Another features was the Memphis protests’ slogan “I AM A MAN” which emphasized on the need for workers to be treated with dignity as human beings. The presence of the civil rights activists during the protests made the strike powerful when racial problems were brought on the national stage. The protests emphasized on the need for changing the economic and racist social conditions that greatly affected the black workers. In addition, through civil disobedience, the workers were able to express the suffering that many workers endured not just in Memphis but across the nation.
The Memphis strike demanded for the respect of labor rights and reinforced the efforts of the civil rights movement in fighting for justice and respect for workers’ rights as human rights. The converging together of labor unions and social movements during the protests expressed the link between the civil rights of the black people and labor rights. As a result, the strike became a social movement that fought discrimination, poverty and emphasized on the need for social justice and economic equality. Labor movements and social movements can learn several lessons from the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike.
The strike was a confirmation of how important defending labor rights is important in efforts that defend human rights. For example, the protests condemned the crushing to death of two garbage collectors, Robert Walker and Echol Cole by a malfunctioning truck due to poor working conditions and the negligence of the management at the Memphis municipal. Branch (Branch, pg. 22) asserts there was violation of civil rights of the African Americans hence civil rights movement leaders such as King supported the rights of black workers .
The protests pointed out the detrimental consequences that poor management at work and poor working conditions can have on the life and health of workers. The fact that the workers lacked proper union representation and good pay was of great concern to the social movements and civil rights leaders. The protests also emphasized on the importance of unions and social movements in fighting for labor rights when the protesters demanded for the recognition of AFSCME. In addition, the poor working conditions for sanitation workers were exposed by the protesters.
Union organizers such as T. O Jones and the civil rights movement activist Robert Lawson were angry about this hence demanded for safe working conditions for the workers. The Memphis protests indicated that there is need for social movements to advocate for political, social and economic equality in the society to promote justice . Economic inequality whereby sanitation workers were denied good pay resulted to social inequality which made them to live in poverty. Social movements need to promote equality and fight racial injustice by opposing racial discrimination.
The Memphis protests were characterized by opposition against discrimination of black workers. The 1,300 workers in the Memphis sanitation department who worked as garbage collectors were African Americans hence the uprising was intertwined with economic and racial themes. During this time, about half of the black residents in Memphis were living below the poverty line, an issue that worried many union leaders and civil rights activists. It was estimated that out of every ten sanitation workers, four of them qualifies for welfare.
While some workers had grown up in Memphis, others had moved to Memphis to escape the poor working and living conditions they were exposed to while working in Mississippi’s cotton fields. Many black workers got crippling injuries while others got maimed. Workers who were disabled as a result of work-related problems were not compensated. The Memphis strike emphasized on the need for labor unions and social movements to address the issue of discrimination and poverty as an indirect means of promoting labor rights.
Brian (Brian, pg. 104) agrees that many sanitation workers in Memphis had realized that nothing was being done about their poor working conditions and living conditions hence the strike was an uprising of the working poor in Memphis. Jackson and King (Jackson and King, pg. 329) consider this to encourage support poverty eradication in order to address economic problems experienced by workers. Poor workers are often exposed to health hazards, work under poor conditions without compensation and lack medical insurance.
The Memphis strike was the resistance of poor workers against oppression and discrimination by employers. Many workers lived in poor living conditions and some were even unable to access amenities and good housing. The failure of the government, the society and employers to assist poor workers improve their living conditions leads discontent of the masses with the leadership and system . The strike was a symbol of the economic struggle of the workers and according to Martin Luther King, the system and not the men is the root of economic injustice.
Many African Americans were facing systematic problems as they tried to escape white supremacy, violence, rural poverty and oppression due to the Jim Crow laws. The segregation and denial of resources and rights continued to widen racial and economic gap in the society. Labor unions and social movements need to come together to support efforts that promote the wellbeing of all workers. For instance, the Memphis protests attracted the support of the labor union AFSCME, social movements and civil rights movement leaders for the sanitation workers.
Since the strike was an indication of all the struggles of the workers, the support of all these parties enabled the workers to have their demands addressed when the strike ended in April. Social movements should fight the exploitation of workers at all costs. TOPIC 2: HOW HAVE OTHER WORKERS’ RIGHTS MOVEMENTS LEARNED OR FORGOTTEN THE LESSONS OF THE MEMPHIS SANITATION STRIKE The Memphis sanitation strike had great impact on labor unions and adherence to worker rights by employers in the US and various parts of the globe.
Various social movements have adopted different strategic lessons that have been learned from the events that unfolded during the Memphis sanitation strike. These movements include the students’ movement, the global justice movement and the immigrant rights movement. Many student movements protest to demand for economic, political and social change in the society and education institutions . These movements support the rights of workers to join unions to avoid cases where workers are denied an opportunity to join a worker’s union. This makes it difficult for them to fight for their rights collectively.
Just like the Memphis sanitation workers did, student movements formulate slogans that indicate what they stand for in order to make their protests or campaigns effective Green (Green, pg. 472) states that the Memphis’ protesters slogan “I AM A MAN” indicated that the respect of the rights of workers emanate from the fact that they have their rights as human beings Since students recognize the importance of the unions in the wellbeing of the workers and their performance, many members of the student movements support workers during demonstrations or marches that seek to establish workers’ unions.
In this case, the supports of student movements to the workers resemble the support the Memphis sanitation workers received from the civil right movement leaders. The non-violence resistance strategy of protesting is used by contemporary student movements to advocate for the respect of workers rights in the education institutions. Students expect the school administration to support the school staff by providing good working conditions hence the movements have been involved in supporting all efforts that ensure that the working conditions in the campus are favorable.
In order to ensure that workers receive good salaries and wages, student movements demand that their representatives are engaged in management meetings where issues related to workers are discussed and critical decisions about management are made. Like the Memphis strike protesters, student movements have organize students’ protests against injustice, inequality and discrimination . However, student movements have failed to learn from the negative effects of violent protests that were witnessed during the Memphis protests.
The protestors participated in marches, boycotts and sit-ins as part of non-violent resistance strategy. Some protests that are organized by student movements have turned violent when they result to confrontations between the law enforcement authorities and the students. Although the Memphis protests also turned violent when some protestors began looting, the violence was criticized by Martin Luther King. Some students who get caught up in violent protests loose their lives while others are injured. This defies the principle of non-violent resistance.
Another lesson that student movements have failed to learn is the importance of selfless dedication and determination in their quest for the respect of worker’s rights and recognition of worker’s union in education institutions. According to Della (Della, pg. 12), the Global Justice Movement has played an important role in promoting economic justice that empowers workers. In reference to Martin Luther King when he gave the “I’ve been to the Mountain top” speech, the issue of injustice lies in the refusal of employers to be fair and honest when dealing with public workers.
This movement is committed to the eradication of poverty in the society by fighting management and corporate practices that deny workers fair pair and hinder economic equality in the society. The global justice movement supports good salaries and wages for workers just like the Memphis sanitation workers demanded. The movement recognizes humanity as the process of developing communication infrastructure and democracy that can promote justice and equality . By promoting economic equality, the movement strives to prevent oppression of workers through poor payment and unfavorable working conditions.
The constant criticism of the movement against globalization that promotes economic inequality through the media has been directed towards the dominance of developing countries in the global economy. For example, the movement criticizes forums such as the G8 which brings together nations that rank as the world’s largest economies to deliberate on how to strengthen the economies at the expense of economic growth of the poor developing nations. The article by AFSCME (AFSCME and Dr.
Martin King, np) indicates that King during his April 3 speech in support of the Memphis sanitation workers recognized the importance of the media in advocacy for workers’ rights when he said “Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right”. The Global Justice Movement uses the media to encourage international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF to provide financial assistance to needy nations without compromising the economic progress of the nations.
Like the Memphis sanitation workers who were protesting poor working conditions, the global justice movement advocates for poverty eradication and justice for all in order to ensure that all people can access basic needs and amenities. The movement also promotes freedom, economic democracy and equal distribution of economic resources across the globe. Although the group has been criticized for its opposition to globalization, it continues to advocate for globalization where all nations benefit from the global economy.
Another social movement that continues to support the objectives of the Memphis sanitation strike is the Immigration Rights Movement. An article about the Immigrant Rights Movement (The Immigrant Rights Movement and the Struggle for Full Equality, np) shows that it has been committed to supporting the rights of immigrants . Many immigrants are faced with the challenge of integrating into a new society. Discrimination in a new community violates the rights of immigrants, whether legal or illegal.
In the US, the movement has been instrumental in advocating for the rights of immigrants who sometimes may be segregated from the rest of the community. Sometimes discrimination against immigrants arises from racial differences. The movement therefore condemns discrimination and inequality that oppresses immigrants based on their race, gender or background. The movement has therefore carried on the mission of the Memphis protesters of fighting racial discrimination. The Immigrant Rights Movement encourages the law enforcement authorities to uphold human rights even when dealing with illegal immigrants.
Other measures that are criticized by the movement include raids and unlawful deportation of immigrants. The movements’ role in pressuring the government to address issues that affect the minorities is similar to the Memphis strike protesters efforts to fight for the rights of the African Americans who were considered inferior to the white people immigrants. Conclusion The Memphis sanitation workers strike of 1968 resulted from the resistance of Memphis sanitation workers to poor working conditions, discrimination and poor payment.
The protests were triggered by the killing of two garbage collectors by a malfunctioning truck and lack of payment for sewer workers. The protests were witnessed at a time when African Americans in the US were demanding for the recognition of their civil rights and integration into the society. The 10 week protest focused on the need for workers’ unions to fight for the rights of workers despite the resistance witnessed against unionization of workers. As a result, the strike led to a coming together of unionists and workers to demand for positive change.
Works Cited AFSCME and Dr. King. I’ve been to the Mountain Top. Accessed on May 7, 2010 from; www. afscme. org/about/1549. cfm Branch, Taylor. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998 Brian, Heshizer. The Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968. Journal of Collective Negotiations in the Public Sector. 22:2, pp. 99-118, 1993 Della, Donatella. The Global Justice Movement: Cross-national and Transnational Perspectives. New York: Paradigm, 2006 Green, Lauren.
Race, Gender and Labor in 1960s Memphis; “I am a Man” Journal of Urban History, 2004, Vol. 30, No. 3, pp. 465-489 Honey, Michael. Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle. University of California Press, 2000 Jackson, Thomas and King, Martin. From Civil Rights to Human Rights. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007 The Immigrant Rights Movement and the Struggle for Full Equality. Accessed on May 7, 2010 from; www. frso. org/docs/2009/immigrant-rights-pamphlet. htm