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.
Letters From Our Members
UPS Tries to Change Law on Rest Breaks
[The Los Angeles Times reported in December that regulatory changes on required meal breaks, proposed by California Governor Schwarzenegger, had been pulled, at least temporarily. Rob Moorhead says UPS lobbied for these changes in response to a lawsuit filed by some of their California drivers over meal and rest break violations.]
Gotta love that Brown-Corporate-Mindset; if UPS breaks the law, just change the law! That’s what those special interest monies are for, after all.
Funny thing though, UPS argues that these new regulations would give workers additional latitude in taking their meal breaks, but UPS drivers already enjoy more rights and latitude under their contract and existing regulations, than under the new regulations. The only benefit seen is reduced exposure to liability and accountability for UPS under the new regulations.
I am told that the first time the regulations reached the “Governator’s” desk last month, it was rejected for being too transparently UPS-specific in scope. By the time it was rewritten as a broader measure, adverse public opinion grew to such an extent that the proposal was pulled.
See, UPS can be beaten! The planets must be in alignment, buy a lotto ticket today!
Local 396, UPS
West Covina, Cal.
Focus on Central States Cuts
TDU should focus on the Central States Pension Fund. Are these cuts in benefits really necessary? What new cuts are the “trustees” planning to cram down our throats?
Local 41, Jack Cooper Transport
Kansas City, Mo.
NAFTA’s Historical Context Needed
I am writing in response to a letter from Jeffrey Ross in the January 2005 Convoy Dispatch. It states, among other comments, that, “Bill Clinton did us no favors with NAFTA.”
George H. W. Bush along with the Canadian Prime Minister and the President of Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement on 12/17/1992, marking the end to a process that began in 1991 when the three leaders announced they would negotiate the trade accord. Furthermore the original NAFTA idea was hatched and aggressively pursued by the Reagan administration.
I applaud Mr. Ross’s plea to make politicians accountable, but I suggest he keep his facts in a more accurate historical context. For what it’s worth I voted for Dennis Kucinich in the Democratic primary, a progressive pro-worker candidate who vehemently opposed, and vowed to overturn, both NAFTA and CAFTA.
Gregory G. Drallos
Local 299, Yellow/Roadway
Hoffa's Top Aide Repays $69,500 Embezzled From Union
February 17, 2005: On January 14, TDU urged Judge Loretta Preska to review a deal that gave James Hoffa’s executive assistant only a slap on the wrist for embezzling $69,500 from our union over a nearly three-year period.
Carlow Scalf, one of the most powerful officials in the union, got the deal with the Teamster Independent Review Board (IRB). The IRB agreed that Scalf would take a 60-day suspension and repay the $69,500 as the sole punishment for filing false reports and receiving 34 months of illegal payments. The payments were a special housing benefit, one that the Hoffa administration established for three persons: Scalf, Hoffa and General Secretary-Treasurer Keegel. Scalf accepted the money, claiming he lived in Michigan when in fact he no longer maintained a residence there.
In a six-page submission to Judge Preska, TDU asked the court to call for an explanation of the extraordinarily light punishment. TDU’s letter to the judge is available at www.tdu.org.
On Feb. 1 the U.S. Attorney submitted to the court a response, taking the position that the IRB has the power to make such a deal as a “compromise agreement,” and that the IRB may have had good reason to do so. The U.S. Attorney’s letter acknowledged, however, that Scalf received “one of [the IRB’s] most lenient sanctions to date,” and that Judge Preska could ask for an investigative report from the IRB.
Scalf will be eligible to come back to his $187,475-a-year position on March 13. The IBT’s PR department released a statement saying Hoffa is reviewing Scalf’s future with the Teamsters.
What Happened to Hoffa’s Little Investigation?
Nearly a year ago, in April 2004, the Teamsters union’s highly advertised RISE anti-corruption program collapsed when its director Ed Stier resigned because, he said, Hoffa and Scalf were responsible for blocking the anti-corruption program.
Hoffa then named Ed McDonald as a new investigator to review Stier’s reports and his investigation into criminal influence at Chicago Teamster locals. After ten months, what has McDonald done, and where is his report?
TDU has learned that McDonald is billing our union some $500 per hour. It would seem that a report is owed to the members for that kind of money.
McDonald’s other clients include one of the nation’s largest waste management corporations (an industry including major Teamster employers), domestic and foreign bank officials, other large financial institutions and their employees, a member of the Saudi Royal family, international businessmen, and the former chairman and deputy chairman of the Russian Securities Commission.
Teamsters Lose Battle at Tyson Foods
February 17, 2005: For months, Local 556 members and leaders in Pasco, Wash., have fought a tremendous battle against union-busting at Tyson Foods. But on Feb. 11, Tyson was able to bust the Teamsters at their Pasco plant.
The union defeat came just one day after Wal-Mart announced they would close their only unionized store in North America rather than deal fairly with the union in Jonquiere, Quebec. Wal-Mart and Tyson are two of the most notoriously anti-union corporations, and both are well connected politically.
Local 556’s well organized and spirited grassroots struggle was not enough to overcome company lies, mass layoffs, and corporate intimidation—not when International officials also turned against the local union. The union is reviewing options for continuing the struggle for justice for Tyson workers.
Hoffa: The Weak Link
Tyson management gladly used Hoffa administration attacks on Local 556 leadership to fuel their union-busting campaign. In the days leading up to the decertification vote, the corporation distributed videotapes and leaflets to every employee. The company also held frequent captive audience meetings where workers were prohibited from speaking or asking questions. These tools are standard for union-busting corporations but the focus of management’s attacks was not: The number one weapon they used against Local 556 in the closing week of their campaign was to quote International officials’ political attacks.
In videotapes, meetings and flyers, management repeatedly quoted IBT Food Processing Division Director Fred Gegare and other IBT officials attacking Local 556 Secretary-Treasurer Maria Martinez. The punch line of one management leaflet quoting Fred Gegare is, “Based on these statements, can there be any question as to how the International Teamsters Union feels Maria Martinez and Local 556 have failed you? Vote NO to Local 556…”
The attacks that Tyson management circulated came from internal union correspondence that the IBT had publicly leaked to undermine Local 556 leaders and recruit a slate to oppose them in the upcoming local union election. Martinez is one of very few Latina principal officers in the Teamsters and a TDU leader who opposed the Hoffa slate in the last two IBT elections.
A Statement, After Voting Started
Martinez wrote to President Hoffa on Feb. 4, urgently requesting that the General President issue a statement of support clarifying the International Union’s position. Hoffa waited six days, until after the voting had already started, to issue a generic half-page statement. By then, the damage was done.
Many Teamster locals and the Washington Joint Council provided solidarity and financial support to Local 556 during the long fight. More than 90 Teamster locals donated tens of thousands of dollars to Local 556. A few Teamster locals and other unions even sent organizers to assist the local.
An organizing committee of more than 75 Tyson workers met weekly to plan and execute the Union Yes campaign, which included house calls, a phone bank, a Union Yes hotline in four languages, radio ads, and multi-lingual leaflets and mailings.
The local also organized an extensive community-labor solidarity campaign that gathered more than 10,000 signatures on a support petition and distributed solidarity messages from churches, union leaders and community groups. Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report on Tyson’s treatment of its employees. More than 500 Tyson workers and supporters attended a labor-community rally to urge workers to vote Union Yes.
First Ever to Defeat Tyson Decert
Using similar tactics, Local 556 defeated Tyson in a decertification vote last April. Local 556 is believed to be the first union local ever to beat Tyson in a decert election. But Tyson successfully lobbied the Bush administration’s NLRB for a rerun election—over the objections of the NLRB’s own Regional Director and hearing officer.
In the lead-up to the second election, Tyson laid off 400 workers at the plant and said that the union was responsible. Supervisors started a whisper campaign that the plant would close if members voted again for the Teamsters. These and other lies were printed in the local Spanish language newspaper, which acted as the company’s mouthpiece during the campaign. Local 556 leaders have filed a libel lawsuit against the publisher who, incredibly, was formerly on the Hoffa administration payroll as a paid attack dog against Local 556 reformers.
A sophisticated and expensive intimidation campaign by the corporation aimed to divide and frighten the immigrant workforce. But in the final analysis, 1,500 Teamsters in Pasco lost their collective bargaining rights because their own international union treated them as collateral damage—less important than the International’s war against the reformers that Local 556 members elected to office by a wide margin.
The Hoffa administration put politics ahead of our union and its members. As a result, our union lost 1,500 members and faces the threat of more decertification votes as food processing corporations look to move against other Teamster bargaining units in Eastern Washington and Oregon.
In the fight against union-busting at Tyson Foods, Local 556 leaders and members were up to the task. So were Teamster local leaders from all sides of the political fence.
It was the IBT that was the weak link in this fight. This victory for the union-busters should be a wake-up call for all Teamsters who care about the future of our union.
Drivers Can Influence New Regulations...But the FMCSA Wants to Ignore Drivers' Health
Teamster drivers have a chance right now to influence the future of Hours of Service regulations. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) was forced back to the drawing board last July after Public Citizen won a federal Appeals Court decision vacating the regulations. In a victory for drivers’ safety and health, the court ruled the FMCSA had “failed to consider the impact of the rules on the health of the drivers.” Congress subsequently passed a law mandating that the 2003 regulations remain in effect until a new final rule replaces it, or until September 30, 2005.
In January, the FMCSA published the exact same proposed rule, with a comment period that ends March 10, 2005. The employers and their associations are of course putting in comments and padding the record.
Teamsters need to get our concerns in the public record. Let the FMCSA know the issues with a) the 34-hour re-start rule; b) fatigue with the 11-hour drive; c) split-sleep in sleepers; and d) dispatch calls permitted after 8 hours with the 10 hours off; and any other problems with the proposal.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) will seek to have the current hours of service rules written into a law by gutting the statute that requires them to consider the “health of the drivers” when crafting the rules.
FMCSA Administrator Annette Sandberg told the executive committee of the American Trucking Associations on Feb. 8 that the agency had sent this proposal to Congress for consideration.
She said the plan was to make permanent the current hours of service rules, which the federal appeals court ruled illegal last July; that ruling was a victory by Public Citizen for drivers and safety. The court ruled that the FMCSA wrote the rules without a sufficient basis, and without proper regard to drivers’ health.
Congress later passed a law to keep the hours of service rules in effect until Sept. 30, 2005, to allow time for new rules to be adopted.
The court unanimously found that the FMCSA didn’t do its job properly. The Bush administration now wants to gut the federal law and relieve the agency of its duty to consider drivers’ health. This attempt to subvert the health and safety of truck drivers and the safety of the motoring public needs to be exposed and defeated.
HazMat Endorsement Coming
Experts expect these background checks to reduce the currently available pool of 2.7 million drivers with hazmat endorsements by 20 percent. Fewer drivers with the endorsement may pressure non-union carriers to increase pay or offer other incentives to hazmat drivers.
Under our national trucking contracts the employer should be required to pay the fee, as they are required to pay for other examinations. Hopefully this protection will be established for all Teamster drivers.
Turmoil at Yellow’s Dallas Terminal
Yellow-Roadway, ABF Profits Up, USF Down After Closing Red Star
Teamsters Push California Port Legislation
February 17, 2005: As part of the IBT effort to organize harbor truckers in California, the union plans to sponsor legislation that would exempt independent drivers from federal antitrust laws. Such an exemption would give these workers the right to collectively negotiate freight rates and withhold services.
The goal remains to remove this workforce from the confines of being considered “independent contractors” and to make the drivers eligible for unionization. Many experts believe the U.S. economy could be crippled by an impending shortage of harbor truck drivers if serious efforts aren’t made to improve working conditions, wages and benefits.
Study Reports Mexican Trucks Remain Safety Risk
February 17, 2005: The Department of Transportation (DOT) recently issued a report concluding that the Mexican government and the country’s trucking firms have not met the safety requirements and preconditions outlined in the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The report says Mexican trucking companies should not be granted long-haul operating authority within the U.S.
The DOT cites problems with access to safety inspections, and raises serious concerns about gathering data on Mexican drivers to identify high-risk carriers, verify insurance information, and establish drug and alcohol testing requirements.