Our campaigns for justice are never truly over; a victory can be significant, yet incomplete

On February 1, 1968, two sanitation workers in Memphis, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were seeking shelter in the back of their garbage truck during a powerful storm. Memphis sanitation workers had often complained about the terrible condition of the trucks, but their words—like the men themselves—were never taken seriously by city officials. The truck’s compactor malfunctioned on this particular day, and both men were crushed to death.

Their deaths 50 years ago today ignited a two-month strike. The historic strike represented a major step forward for workers’ rights, but ended in the death, on April 4, 1968, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Cole and Walker were members of AFSCME Local 1733. Thursday, Feb. 1—the first day of Black History Month—marks the beginning of AFSCME’s I AM 2018 tribute to the two men and the sanitation workers’ strike. At 1 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, a moment of silence will be observed in their honor.

The I AM 2018 tribute includes a number of activities as well as opportunities to volunteer in community action and service. The 1,300 sanitation workers’ courageous act of defiance ultimately challenged—and changed—the nation.

We mark this day, sadly, in the aftermath of a Virginia sanitation worker’s death. Christopher Foley was killed when the sanitation truck he was in collided with an Amtrak train.  We don’t have all the details yet, but the accident is a reminder that sanitation work is high risk. In fact, it is one of America’s  10 most dangerous jobs, with a fatality rate of almost 36 workers per 100,000.

The sanitation workers’ strike was about safety standards, pay, and benefits, and the right to be represented by their union. But it was about much more than that. It was about the discrimination that kept these hard-working African-American men poor, no matter how many hours they logged on those decrepit trucks. It was about the harsh, racist insults and taunts they endured, and about men who were fathers and grandfathers being called “boy” and treated like the garbage they collected.

The AFSCME Local 1733 strike was a demand for justice on the job, respect for working people, and, for the sanitation workers, the dignity of being regarded as men.

NEA is proud to salute the sanitation workers and to join members of AFSCME in observing a moment of silence on behalf of Echol Cole and Robert Walker. Memorializing the strike is particularly meaningful for our nation’s teachers, school bus drivers, social workers, bridge inspectors, fire fighters, and all public service workers. What we do protects our neighborhoods and keeps our schools open and our kids safe.

It is also important to appreciate the freedom we have today to join unions, negotiate collectively, and raise our voices together. For educators, this means advocating for the resources our students deserve and the tools we need as dedicated professionals. We can advocate together for the opportunity all students deserve to have an education that sparks their curiosity and desire to learn.

Union rights are critical at a time when the divide between the wealthy and working families is wider than ever. But these rights are at risk. Corporate CEOs and their powerful allies want to silence our voices. Working people are stronger when we come together in unions, and union foes know it. They know that unions exert pressure on industries that raises wages and improves benefits, even for those who are not union members themselves.  

Dr. King understood the connection between workers’ rights and civil rights and the power of unions. That’s why he went to stand with the sanitation workers—not just once but three times. He did this despite the counsel of advisers who urged him not to get involved and to stay focused on planning the Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. King famously said in Memphis, on the last night of his life and the eve of the second march:

“Now…we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school—be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”

Ultimately, the sanitation workers didn’t gain all they sought after Memphis–reluctantly–recognized their union. After decades of continued struggle, 14 of the strikers, including four who were still on the job a year ago, received grants from the city in 2017 because the sanitation workers are not covered by the city pension plan. Those hired in later years are part of a supplemental retirement plan, but remain well behind their peers in terms of retirement security. We must keep the pressure on Memphis so that they can all enjoy a dignified retirement.

On February 1, 1968, two sanitation workers in Memphis, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were seeking shelter in the back of their garbage truck during a powerful storm. Memphis sanitation workers had often complained about the terrible condition of the trucks, but their words—like the men themselves—were never taken seriously by city officials. The truck’s compactor malfunctioned on this particular day, and both men were crushed to death.

Their deaths 50 years ago today ignited a two-month strike. The historic strike represented a major step forward for workers’ rights, but ended in the death, on April 4, 1968, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Cole and Walker were members of AFSCME Local 1733. Today marks the beginning of AFSCME’s I AM 2018 tribute, which includes opportunities to volunteer in community action and service, to the two men and the strike of 1,300 sanitation workers. Their courageous act of defiance ultimately challenged—and changed—the nation.

I am a man

We mark this day, sadly, in the aftermath of a Virginia sanitation worker’s death. The worker was killed when the sanitation truck collided with an Amtrak train. We don’t have all the details yet, but the accident underscores that sanitation work is high risk. In fact, it is one of America’s  10 most dangerous jobs, with a fatality rate of almost 36 workers per 100,000.

The sanitation workers’ strike was about safety standards, pay, and benefits, and the right to be represented by their union. But it was about much more than that. It was about the discrimination that kept these hard-working African-American men poor, no matter how many hours they logged on those decrepit trucks. It was about the harsh, racist insults and taunts they endured, and about men who were fathers and grandfathers being called “boy” and treated like the garbage they collected.

The AFSCME Local 1733 strike was a demand for justice on the job, respect for working people, and, for the sanitation workers, the dignity of being regarded as men.

NEA is proud to salute the sanitation workers and to join members of AFSCME in observing a moment of silence on behalf of Echol Cole and Robert Walker. Memorializing the strike is particularly meaningful for our nation’s teachers, school bus drivers, social workers, bridge inspectors, fire fighters, and all public service workers. What we do protects our neighborhoods and keeps our schools open and our kids safe.

It is also important to appreciate the freedom we have today to join unions, negotiate collectively, and raise our voices together. For educators, this means advocating for the resources our students deserve and the tools we need as dedicated professionals. We can advocate together for the opportunity all students deserve to have an education that sparks their curiosity and desire to learn.

Union rights are critical at a time when the divide between the wealthy and working families is wider than ever. But these rights are at risk. Corporate CEOs and their powerful allies want to silence our voices. Working people are stronger when we come together in unions, and union foes know it. They know that unions exert pressure on industries that raises wages and improves benefits, even for those who are not union members themselves.  

Dr. King understood the connection between workers’ rights and civil rights and the power of unions. That’s why he went to stand with the sanitation workers—not just once but three times. He did this despite the counsel of advisers who urged him not to get involved and to stay focused on planning the Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. King famously said in Memphis, on the last night of his life and the eve of the second march:

“Now…we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school—be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”

Ultimately, the sanitation workers didn’t gain all they sought after Memphis–reluctantly–recognized their union. After decades of continued struggle, 14 of the strikers, including four who were still on the job a year ago, received grants from the city in 2017 because the sanitation workers are not covered by the city pension plan. Those hired in later years are part of a supplemental retirement plan, but remain well behind their peers in terms of retirement security. We must keep the pressure on Memphis so that they can all enjoy a dignified retirement.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our campaigns for justice and fairness are never truly over; a victory can be significant, yet incomplete. 

That means we must be vigilant and always ready to stand together for what we believe in.  Echol Cole, Robert Walker, and all the sanitation workers of Local 1733 remind us that together, our voices can be a clarion call for justice, a powerful force for change. It is more important than ever that we keep on raising them.

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