Martin Luther King: 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike Was Powered By the Rank and File
“…If you stand up straight, people can’t ride your back. And that’s what we did. We stood up straight.”
That's how Taylor Rogers explains the success of the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike. Rogers was a principal organizer of the historic strike.
That strike ended in victory, but it was also the setting for the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
| Martin Luther King on Workers' Rights |
See Martin Luther King's last speech to striking sanitation workers and read what he had to say about workers' rights.
The strike followed the death of two black workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed by a faulty garbage truck compressor. The needless deaths became a rallying cry for recognition—of the union, of the workers’ rights, and of their basic humanity as African-American men in the still-segregated South. In response to the tragedy, the city’s sanitation department gave each of the grieving families one month’s pay and $500 for funeral expenses. No one from the city government would attend the funerals.
A Crucial Battle
A broad coalition of labor, religious and community groups responded by launching what became a crucial battle for civil and labor rights. Mayor Henry Loeb refused to negotiate with the workers and declared the strike illegal. An early march through downtown Memphis garnered attention for the workers’ cause, but ended in violence as police sprayed protestors with mace. Mounting tensions led to the cancellation of talks between the city council and the workers. Further protests ended in chaos, mass arrests, and the police murder of Larry Payne, a 16-year-old boy who was marching alongside the strikers.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was warned by many that the situation in Memphis was too volatile to resolve peacefully. Nevertheless he made the trip to Memphis to rally the city and speak on behalf of the as-yet-unrecognized Local 1733. On this trip Dr. King tragically met his assassin’s bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
King’s murder resonated the world over, yet perhaps nowhere more loudly than in Memphis. A shaken city finally bowed to the union’s demands and began collective bargaining. AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), who had worked alongside King and the sanitation workers, was also instrumental in the settlement.
Rainy Day Pay
Local 1733’s contract victory included higher wages, dues check off, and the updating of the antiquated sanitation equipment. Another practice that had infuriated black workers—sending them home on rainy days without pay while white supervisors sat around and collected a paycheck—was also ended.
We remember this as a victory not only for civil rights and labor, but also for the broader movement for rank and file democracy. This strike was initiated, organized and carried out not by top union brass but by rank and file workers and their local leaders. In fact, during the strike’s initial stages, AFSCME’s leaders tried to dissuade the workers from seeking all of their demands.
From the organizing efforts of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in early 20th century South Chicago to the courageous efforts of Cesar Chavez to organize migrant farmer workers, the labor movement has been at its best when uniting with the cause of civil rights. TDU salutes all past and present rank and file movements for dignity, respect, and economic justice, here and abroad.
Workers left to rot by U.S. Food Service
August 9, 2010: When Thomas P. Samatas, co-founder of Labor One Inc., was building his business, he turned to a part of the work force that is often shunned.
Samatas hired young black men -- some saddled with felonies -- from CHA's Cabrini-Green housing development to unload trucks at U.S. Food Service's Bensenville facility.
Click here to read more at Sun-Times Media.
Yellow told to turn over workers' list
July 27, 2010: Yellow Transportation must turn over the names and phone numbers of black employees who worked at the company's Chicago Ridge terminal as part of a federal lawsuit filed last year, alleging racial discrimination, according to a court ruling.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Yellow in December, alleging that black workers at the terminal, which closed last year, were subjected to insulting messages, including hangman's nooses and racist graffiti.
Click here to read more at Sun-Times Media.
Teamsters Still Fighting for The Dream
January 18, 2010: This month our nation and Teamster members remember and celebrate the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and countless other civil rights activists.
But for many Teamsters, Dr. King’s fight continues.
Thousands of Teamsters still face discrimination, even at some of the biggest Teamster employers. Just ask UPS Teamsters in Lumberton in rural eastern North Carolina.
UPS management targeted Black and Native American drivers and imposed harsher discipline on these drivers.
UPS drivers got organized and they filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Their charge is now being investigated.
UPS isn’t alone. On Dec. 10, the EEOC filed suit against YRC. They charged that that Black Teamsters at the Chicago Ridge terminal faced stricter discipline and got the worst job assignments.
Workers at Chicago Ridge even saw a hangman’s noose and racist graffiti put up in the terminal.
The Right to Organize
Dr. King died fighting for workers’ right to organize in Memphis.
But the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) has been held up in Congress by corporate lobbyists and weak politicians.
The new law would make it easier for workers who want a union to organize, and it would impose harsher penalties on employers who break the law and harass or fire union supporters.
Our union supports the Employee Free Choice Act. Passing EFCA would honor what Dr. King died fighting for—and help hundreds of thousands of workers exercise their right to organize.
“Martin Luther King said you have to stand up for the right thing, even if it’s not popular,” said Nichele Fulmore, a Lumberton Teamster in Local 391.
“We still have people who don’t want to do the right thing—in management and also in this union. They’re happy when members are divided. As rank and filers we must stand up for what is right even if this means standing up to union leaders. Remember Dr. King also said, ‘An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”
Martin Luther King’s Fight for Worker Rights
In 1968, two Memphis garbage workers were crushed to death by a faulty garbage truck compressor.
Thousands of Black garbage workers went on strike. The city of Memphis refused to recognize their union or negotiate. Trash piled up.
With signs saying “I Am A Man,” Memphis workers brought together a broad coalition of labor, religious, and community members and leaders—including Dr. Martin Luther King.
On April 3, King delivered a powerful speech to the striking workers and called for a mass march of strikers and community supporters. The next day he was shot and killed.
The workers held their march. The city gave in to strikers’ demands, and the workers in Memphis won the right to organize and have a union contract.
You can listen to King’s speech and read an account of the strike here.
22 Years of Fighting for a Stronger Local 814
November 3, 2009: Commercial mover Walter Taylor has been fighting for a stronger Local 814 since 1987. His efforts bore fruit in their 2009 election when Local 814 voted 72% for new leadership.
TDU interviewed Walter about how they made it happen.
How did you get involved?
I didn’t choose activism. I guess you could say activism chose me.
I got my union card in 1987. The first company I worked for started adding people to the seniority list.
There was a list of 32 names—and my name wasn’t there. I had been working there for a lot longer than other guys. Apparently the foreman decided to only put white guys on the list.
I called the shop steward. He filed a grievance. Then he called me and said I won. But I was put on the bottom of the list.
I filed another grievance. They kept telling me “these things take time.” After a while, my time ran out. I had to learn the hard way that you can’t always trust your union officials.
The problem hasn't gone away. There's one employer I worked for all the time. But when I helped members get on the seniority list there, they stopped giving me work and they cut off another friend of mine who also just happens to be African American at exactly the same time. Unfortunately racism still plays a factor in this industry.
How did you hear about Teamsters for a Democratic Union?
Years ago, a slate formed to run against Bobbie Corbett, the head of the union at the time. I helped out. The slate didn’t win, but one of the older guys told me: “If you ever need any help, just call TDU.”
A few years later, our local came to us with a Moving and Storage contract full of concessions. We came to TDU for help.
TDU helped us put together a contract campaign. We passed out flyers explaining the problems with the contract. Members voted No and the local put us out on strike.
We asked the local what the plan was to win. The local told us: “You’re the guys out on strike. We’re still working.” There was no plan at all. So we turned to TDU again.
TDU helped us get organized. We organized a phone tree and shut down 26 shops in 2 days. We avoided a lot of the worst concessions. After I saw TDU in action, I became a member.
TDU members worked together to organize another Vote No campaign against contract concessions in 2005. It was the worst contract ever—a five year deal. That’s the contract we’re under now. It was clear after that they we needed to get new leadership.
I ran three years ago for the top spot in the local. We didn’t win. But we had a respectable showing. And we learned a lot about how to run a campaign.
This is a big victory. How did it happen?
I was sold on running Jason Ide from the get-go. He was my pick because he ran the first successful contract campaign in Local 814.
I knew it would take support from a lot of guys. So I reached out to other companies for support. Our contract is up next year. Members were ready for change and a new direction.
We put together a good team. Jason was a great top candidate. They took the ball and ran with it. We built up our phone list. We got pictures of members to endorse our slate. We sent out mailers. We got a lot of good advice from TDU.
What would you say to other Black Teamsters who want to be leaders like you in our union?
Local 814 always operated like a club. It was all about who you knew.
If you’re going to survive that and change it, you can’t do it alone. You need other people who will fight with you. I got that from TDU.
It’s easy to get lost, easy to get frustrated. It took me 22 years of fighting. I could have walked away any time. But I was stubborn.
Now I want our union to be an example of how it’s really supposed to be done. We’re going to include the members, and let everyone have a voice.
Martin Luther King on Workers' Rights
Martin Luther King was a powerful advocate for unions and workers rights. See his last speech to striking sanitation workers and read what he had to say about workers' rights.
Martin Luther King's Speech to Striking Memphis Sanitation Workers
On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King gave his last speech to support sanitation workers on strike for union recognition in Memphis. The next day King was assassinated.
Martin Luther King on Right-to-Work Laws
"In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as 'right to work.' It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. It is supported by Southern segregationists who are trying to keep us from achieving our civil rights and our right of equal job opportunity. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone.Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote."
King speaking on right-to-work laws in 1961.
African American Teamsters Push for Leadership Opportunities
June 30, 2008: Hundreds of thousands of Teamsters are African American, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the Teamsters General Executive Board. Out of 26 voting members, only one is Black.
“We need a union leadership that looks like our membership,” says Willie Hardy, a retiree and long-time Teamster and community leader in Memphis Local 667.
“Our top leadership is less diverse than the boards of many of the companies we fight against.”
Black Teamsters have been working for decades to win more representation for African Americans in leadership at all levels of our union. Their work has built our union’s power for everyone.
More progress needs to be made if we’re going to build a union that taps the leadership skills of all of our members.
Teamsters National Black Caucus
At the 1971 Teamster Convention in Miami, Black officers and union representatives decided to do something about the lack of representation in the union’s top spots. Back then, there were no African Americans on the General Executive Board.
Black Teamsters were also angry that organizer jobs at the International were off-limits to African-Americans.
This group of local officers and representatives gave birth to the Teamster National Black Caucus.
In 1976, Black Teamsters won a victory at the next convention, when John Cleveland, the head of Washington, D.C. Local 730, became the first African American added to the union’s executive board.
But even that victory was bittersweet, recalled Ed Kornegay, the late head of Local 922 in D.C.
Frank Fitzsimmons, Teamster General President at the time, kept the appointment secret from Cleveland until he announced it on the floor of the convention. “Otherwise,” Kornegay remembered, “we would have had time to make sure family and supporters were in the hall and could celebrate this historic moment.”
The National Black Caucus will hold its next meeting on Aug. 18-24 in St. Louis.
More Progress Needed
Cleveland and other TNBC pioneers helped make our union stronger and more inclusive. But there’s more work needed.
Latinos and women make up a growing section of our union. But there’s only one woman with a vote on the GEB—and no Latinos. (One other woman and a Latino hold non-voting trustee positions).
Our International Union created a Human Rights Commission under the slogan, “A Strong Union Involves Everyone.” But actions speak louder than words.
Last year, our union had an opportunity to increase representation on the GEB, when Frank Gillen was removed as an International Vice President.
The General Executive Board filled the vacancy with Bill Hamilton—ignoring the many qualified Black, Latino and women leaders in our union. Out of 26 voting members on the General Executive Board, 24 are white men.
“The lack of representation sends a message to employers that they can treat members as second-class citizens,” says Michael Savwoir, a UPS feeder driver in Kansas City Local 41. “We’ve got to send a different message.”
“We need change in our union at all levels,” says Toni Jackson, a UPS Teamster in Memphis Local 667. “It starts with educating members to enforce our contracts and recruiting members to run for steward. That’s what I try to do in my local.”
In 2006, Jackson took her long experience as a steward to the next level, when she ran for Southern Region Vice President on the Tom Leedham Strong Contracts, Good Pensions Slate. She narrowly lost.
More Black Teamsters are taking up the challenge by becoming leaders at the local level—as officers, stewards, and active members.
“The fact that only one African American is on this board is sad. We have hundreds of thousands of African Americans who pay dues,” says Nichele Fulmore, a steward in North Carolina Local 391. “It’s up to us to change our union. Those of us who are active in the union have to motivate other members to get involved.”
“TDU has been training Teamster members for 32 years on how to get more involved in our union,” says Willie Hardy. “We give members the tools they need to deal with grievances, win strong contracts, or run for local union office.”
A strong union involves everyone. And it’s up to all of us to make it happen.
Black Teamsters will have a special meeting at the upcoming Teamsters for a Democratic Union Convention, Oct. 24-26 in Cleveland.
Teamster Takes on Racism at Kraft Foods
May 1, 2008: When an employee at Kraft Foods repeatedly directed the epithet “coon” at Willie Knox, the Local 445 Teamster knew he had to stand up for his rights.
A poster at the company urges employees to call an “Integrity Hotline” to report issues of harassment or discrimination. Knox called the number. He had no way of knowing that call would lead to his termination.
But six weeks after he blew the whistle on racial harassment, Kraft fired Knox and accused him of violating the company’s policy on harassment.
The Teamster trailer driver continues to stand up for his rights. With the help of Local 445, Knox is fighting his termination in arbitration. He has also filed a complaint with the New York State Human Rights Commission.
Slurs, Threats, Termination
When Knox called the Integrity Hotline, he expected his complaint to be investigated and dealt with. “I didn’t want anyone to get into trouble. I just wanted the harassment to stop,” Knox said.
Instead, the problems at Kraft got worse—escalating from verbal harassment to threats.
On February 4, an angry Kraft employee confronted Knox and threatened him for making the complaint. “He went off on me and told me I better ‘watch my f***ing back’ as long as I worked at Kraft,” said Knox.
To make matters worse, the employee who made the threats, Mark Mohammed, had previously brought a knife to the workplace. Knox reported the threat to management. But Kraft manager Pat Sherman just laughed, Knox says.
“After that, I tried to defuse the situation myself by telling Mohammed I had no problem with him or anyone else. I asked him to ride over with me to Penske’s so I could drop my truck off there,” Knox said.
Mohammed refused, telling Knox, “I don’t do favors for Black people because I’m prejudiced.”
“Since You Like To Report Things…”
Later that day, Mohammed confronted Knox for a third time while he was in an office filling out some paperwork. Sherman entered the room and Knox again pleaded with the manager to put a stop to the harassment. Again, Sherman said nothing.
“You ain’t the only one that knows how to use a weapon,” a frustrated Knox told Mohammed.
The Kraft manager, who had repeatedly turned a deaf ear when the issue was racial discrimination and threats, suddenly developed a keen interest in the company’s zero tolerance policy on harassment—when he could use the rules to go after Knox.
Sherman hauled Knox into the office. He told the Teamster, “Since you like to report things, I’m going to have to report this.” On February 6, Kraft terminated Knox for violating the company’s harassment policy.
To this day, no one from Kraft has ever spoken to Knox to investigate his allegations of racial harassment.
The Issue Is Respect
When Knox called the “Integrity Hotline,” they told him that his file read: “The case is resolved. Employee no longer works at Kraft.”
A background check on the “Integrity Hotline” reveals that it is not a Kraft entity at all. The hotline is a third-party service run by Global Compliance—a spinoff from the notorious Pinkerton agency.
For Knox, the case is far from “resolved.” He filed a grievance for termination without just cause, which is headed to arbitration. Local 445 helped Knox find work at another union employer.
After several weeks, Kraft offered Knox his job back with no backpay on the condition that he drop his discrimination complaint with the New York State Human Rights Commission. Knox refused.
“Don’t tell me I have to surrender my civil rights to work at Kraft,” Knox said. “I’m willing to drop my case if Kraft will step up to the plate and do the right thing. Or I’ll return to work without back pay and we can let the Human Rights Commission decide.
“The bottom line is I work hard and do my job right. All I’m asking in return is that I be treated with respect,” Knox said.
TDU’s Black Caucus Launches Webpage
April 8, 2008: The Black Caucus of Teamsters for a Democratic Union has launched a webpage to share and highlight the work of African American Teamsters to build a strong union.
TDU’s Black Caucus is a network of Black Teamsters from across our union who work together and share strategies for building a union that fights for all of our members.
“It’s time for a union leadership that looks like our union’s membership,” said Willie Hardy, a member of TDU’s International Steering Committee from Memphis, Tenn. “TDU’s Black Caucus is a place for African American Teamsters to talk about how we can get that done.”
If you want to help build a stronger union, your help is needed.
Want to get involved in the TDU Black Caucus? Click here to contact us and a TDU member will contact you.
Click here to visit the Black Teamsters webpage on the TDU website.
Click here to read the article “We Need a Union Leadership That Looks Like Our Membership.”
We Need a Union Leadership that Looks Like Our Membership
April 8, 2008: The membership of our union is changing more every year, but the top Teamster leadership has not kept pace.
African Americans and Latinos make up a bigger portion of Teamster membership than ever before. And women Teamsters now account for a quarter of our total membership.
But our union’s top leadership doesn’t look like our membership.
The General Executive Board, our union’s elected leadership body, includes only one African American who is entitled to vote, out of 26. Two other African Americans and one Latino are non-voting Trustees.
The position of women among our top leaders is just as bad. Only one woman Teamsters has a vote on the Executive Board. Another woman is a non-voting trustee.
There has been progress, because of the efforts and struggles of Teamster members.
At the 1971 Teamster Convention, African American members and officers raised concerns about the fact that there were no Black IBT representatives or GEB members. Members launched the Teamsters National Black Caucus at that convention.
At the next convention in 1976, the Teamster leadership appointed John Cleveland from Washington D.C. Local 730 as an International Vice President.
Cleveland had fought hard to win greater representation and power for Black Teamsters in our union. Rather than move aside any of the white GEB members, the officials created a new position on the Board for Brother Cleveland.
The first woman wasn’t elected to our union’s top leadership until 1991, when Diana Kilmury—a long-time TDU leader from British Columbia Local 155—was elected with the Ron Carey Slate. That same year, the first Latino member was elected with Ron Carey, John Riojas of San Antonio. Kilmury later chaired the first Teamster Human Rights Commission.
We Need More Leaders
In some locals, members have made significant progress in building a leadership that looks like our membership. In other locals, less progress has been made.
But the problem is not that our union has too many bad leaders. Our union needs more leaders, especially African Americans, at all levels.
Every Teamster can be a leader, whether you want to be more active in your local, become a steward, or run for office. Being a leader means taking responsibility for your fellow Teamsters and helping them get organized.
That’s what TDU is all about.
The TDU Black Caucus is a space for Black Teamsters to learn from each other and get support in our fight to build a union that works for all of our members.
We offer training and workshops for working Teamsters who want to learn more about handling grievances, winning strong contracts, and building the movement for reform in our union.
Want to learn more? Click here to contact the TDU Black Caucus and a member will contact you.