On Monday, February 12, 1,375 men (mostly sanitation workers but also other employees of Memphis' Department of Public Works) went out on strike.
The walk out originated over a sewer workers' grievance. Twenty-two employees of that department who reported for work on January 31 were sent home when it began raining. White employees were not sent home and, when the rain stopped after an hour or so, were put to work and paid for the full day. The Negro workers complained. The city then paid them two hours' "call up pay." When they saw their pay envelopes at the end of the week, they called a meeting of Memphis Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFL-CIO). Local 1733 is all Negro. The local had no official status, a result of the city of Memphis' policy of not recognizing a particular union as bargaining agent for municipal employees. The question of recognition of the union was to become a central issue in the strike.
Mayor Henry Loeb, who was elected in October, 1967, took the position that the strike was illegal and that the strikers had to return to work before their grievances could be discussed. He declared that he would never sign a contract, that the city could not recognize a particular union as bargaining agent for municipal employees, and that he would not agree to a dues check-off. The union insisted that federal precedent supported its demand for recognition. Indications were that the mayor would not be adamant on any of the other points.
Coming even as it did in the shadow of the devastating, nine-day sanitation strike in New York City, the Memphis strike received little notice outside the state. It did not create a "newsworthy" crisis as the New York strike did. The reason is simple: Memphis has a population of just over 500,000. Using non-union workers and supervisors, the city managed to keep picking up garbage and trash downtown and from vital institutions, such as hospitals. They also kept enough scab crews operating to pick up in designated residential sections each day. The daily papers printed maps showing which neighborhoods would get service on that day, and the location of city dumps so that citizens could dispose of their own accumulations, if they wished. The garbage problem was kept below crisis proportions.
Mayor Loeb, a tall, big-boned, darkly handsome man, spoke of plans he still had in reserve, such as one to place garbage trucks at shopping centers to which citizens could bring their garbage. When 317 men reported for work on the seventeenth day of the strike (108 non-strikers, 62 strikers who returned, and 147 new men) the mayor was delighted and spoke of the possibility of tapering off on hiring as soon as the force "gets high enough to provide once-a-week pickups."
The strike was merely a symptom of Memphis' larger problem.
More than 200,000 of the city's citizens are Negroes -- about 40 per cent of the population. The 80,000 Negro voters were almost solidly against Loeb when he was elected last October; but Negroes failed to vote in a bloc for any other candidate, including A. W. Willis, Negro representative to the Tennessee House. Mayor Loeb's handling of the sanitation strike, with concurrence of the City Council, apparently triggered the release in the Negro community of built-up resentment over low wages generally and under-employment of Negroes in local government. Their resentment was heightened by disappointment, for there had been hope that the new mayor-council form of city government (changed from commission form in January) and a new police commissioner would mean a change for the better.
On February 16, the local chapter of the NAACP threatened massive demonstrations unless the city met the demands of the strikers. A group of Negro ministers, with the Reverend James Lawson as chairman, became interested in the strike, since many of the workers were members of their congregations. They began by sponsoring a series of meetings between city and union officials.
On Monday, February 19, while the second of this series of meetings was in progress, representatives of the NAACP and some of the strikers picketed in front of city hall. Little progress was made in the negotiations. The demonstrators continued their vigil through the night and left at dawn without incident.