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Labor Unions Across the Country Honor Echol Cole, Robert Walker, and the Memphis Sanitation Workers Who Led the Historic Sanitation Strike of 1968

March 1st, 2018
Memphis sanitation workers

PHOTO CAPTION: Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was present when King was shot, stands with two of the original Memphis sanitation workers who were on strike at the time. © Emily Mills – Creative Commons License – Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By: Lauren M. Hoye

February 1, 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of the tragic deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, two sanitation workers killed on the job by a trash compactor in the City of Memphis, Tennessee. It was their deaths that sparked the historic sanitation strike of 1968, which began on February 12, 1968 and lasted more than two months. Faced with the unsafe working conditions that resulted in the deaths of Cole and Walker, as well as low wages and the City’s refusal to recognize their union, AFSCME Local 1733, the City’s sanitation workers refused to report to work on February 12, 1968.

It was during the 1968 strike that Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Memphis to lead a demonstration in support of the sanitation workers. It was also during this strike that Larry Payne, a sixteen-year-old African American was killed by Memphis police officers, and nearly four thousand National Guard troops were mobilized in the City of Memphis.  King returned to Memphis on April 3, 1968, nearly two months after the strike began, and delivered his last public speech – the famous “Mountaintop” speech. King was assassinated the following evening.

Two weeks later, the strike was resolved after then – President Lyndon Johnson sent the undersecretary of labor, James Reynolds, to Memphis. The city ultimately agreed to issue raises to employees and to recognize AFSCME as the workers’ labor union, although additional work stoppages had to be threatened in order to force the City of Memphis to honor its agreements.

Over the course of the past week, labor unions across the country gathered to honor the lives of Cole and Walker, and to commemorate the strike that became a turning point in our country’s labor history. AFSCME’s “I Am 2018” campaign organized a moment of silence, in which numerous other labor unions participated, to mark the deaths of Cole and Walker. Across Twitter and Facebook, labor unions shared with followers how they were observing the moment of silence.

Across all 10 University of California campuses, AFSCME-represented employees participated in a demonstration on February 1. In Philadelphia, AFSCME members gathered outside City Hall carrying the emblematic “I AM A Man” signs that the striking workers carried in 1968.

AFSCME International President Lee Saunders and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney addressed the crowd in Philadelphia. Sanitation workers across the country, including in New York City, Washington D.C., Milwaukee, and Minnesota, pulled over the side the road during their work days to bow their heads for the moment of silence. The NFL Players Association, in Minnesota for the Super Bowl, also joined AFSCME in the moment of silence.

Although 50 years have passed since the Memphis sanitation strike, many of the issues that plagued the striking employees in 1968–unsafe working conditions, low wages, discrimination in the workplace, and exploitative employers–still exist for some American workers today. The events of this past week demonstrate that labor unions remain committed to remedying these issues and to not allowing the sacrifices of our predecessors to be forgotten as we continue to strive for a more just workplace.

If you have questions about labor law and union representation, please contact the labor and employment lawyers at Willig, Williams & Davidson at (800) 631-1233.


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