Some of the sanitation workers who went on strike in Memphis in 1968 — the labor action that drew Martin Luther King Jr. to the site of his assassination — will join in events this week commemorating the 45th anniversary of the civil right leader’s death. A half-dozen of them are still on the job.
The ceremonies will be led by AFSCME President Lee Saunders, who last year became the first African American to head the 1.6-million member union.
“We are honoring not only the memory of Dr. King, but we’re honoring the strikers who really risked their lives to have a better life for themselves and their families,” Saunders said in an interview with USA TODAY’s Capital Download video series. The commemorations come as public-employee unions are under growing fire from city and state governments struggling to balance budgets.
“We understand when our communities are hurting, when our state and local governments are hurting economically, that we’ve got to make sacrifices,” Saunders said. “But we should not be scapegoated.” Unions should be more aggressive in pushing back against actions seen as damaging by Democratic officials they helped elect, he said: “I think there should be a price to pay.”
A replica of the statue of Martin Luther King Jr. that was dedicated in 2011 on the National Mall stands in the lobby of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees headquarters.
In 1968, King went to Memphis to support members of AFSCME Local 1733, who went on strike demanding collective-bargaining rights, higher wages and improved safety conditions after two trash collectors were crushed to death. On April 3 at the Mason Temple, he delivered his iconic speech declaring, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.”
The next day at the Lorraine Motel, he was shot and killed.
AFSCME is sponsoring a panel discussion Wednesday at the Mason Temple with civil rights and other leaders, including Martin Luther King III. On Thursday, organizers will rally at the historic Local 1733 headquarters and march to the Lorraine Motel, the site of the National Civil Rights Museum. The city of Memphis will rename Beale Street, where the local union headquarters was located, “1968 Strikers Lane.”
Of the 1,300 sanitation workers who went on strike 45 years ago, eight are still working, AFSCME says. In their 60s to 80s, they are Nathaniel Broome, Johnnie Hardeman, Robert Hobson, Leslie Moore, Allen Sanders, Cleophus Smith, Nathaniel Taylor and Russell Walton.
Public employees face current-day challenges, Saunders said, including efforts by Republican governors such as Scott Walker of Wisconsin who have sought to limit collective-bargaining rights. If Walker seeks the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, as he has suggested, “he should expect that we will oppose him every step of the way,” Saunders said. “We never forget. We have long memories.”
He also chastised Democratic officeholders, including Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who have sought concessions by public workers such as pay cuts, higher health insurance premiums and lower pensions.
“It really does annoy me when we support candidates and after that election is over with, they have amnesia and they forget how they got there and who supported them, and they want to take us on rather than work with us to resolve problems,” Saunders said. “And when politicians do that, I think there should be a price to pay, and I think we need to be more aggressive in our approach in holding politicians accountable.”
He said a contract agreement was reached recently with the state of Illinois only after workers “put heat on the governor,” including staging protests at his public appearances.
By Susan Page, USA TODAY