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Memphis Strikers Stand Firm (March 1968)

Union Recognition Still Remains as Principal Issue

Public Employee, March 1968

MEMPHIS, TENN

Standing firm in their fight for union recognition, dues deduction, a meaningful grievance procedure and wage improvements, the 1,300 members of SCME Local 1733 entered their seventh week of the public works strike here as The Public Employee went to press.

While the city has stubbornly refused to recognize the union, grant dues deductions, set up grievance machinery, and meet other demands of the workers, the strike has accomplished a remarkable coalescing of the Negro community. The pent-up frustrations of the community have been brought dramatically to the surface, with the strike serving as a catalyst to unify the city's 200,000 Negroes, who represent 36 percent of the population of this mid-South city.

P.J. Ciampa getting maced
Photo Caption: J.P. Ciampa, AFSCME International Field Staff Director,
maced while supporting striking sanitation workers.

International President Jerry Wurf has been here much of the time, leading the fight for union recognition.

Wurf, J.P. Ciampa, International field staff director; Local 1733 President T.O. Jones, William Lucy, associate director of legislative and community affairs; Joseph Paisley and Jesse Epps, International representatives, and Newman Jones, a local 1733 steward, were judged in contempt of court on the grounds they violated an injunction ordering the workers to return to their jobs.

The city's case against Wurf was largely based on the fact that the International President had addressed the Memphis City Council asking the Council to take action to settle the strike. The city maintained that Wurf's talking to the councilmen constituted incitement.

The seven men were sentenced to 10 days in jail and $50 fines. The case is being appealed to a higher court and the union leaders are free on bond.

Activity has run the gamut from mass meetings, sit-ins at City Hall, marches through downtown, church rallies, all-night vigils, economic boycotts and futile attempts to reason with Mayor Henry Loeb, who prides himself as being "hard-headed."

One of the highlights of the numerous rallies was the appearance of Roy Wilkins, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Bayard Rustin of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. The rally was attended by more than 15,000 persons.

This was followed by another mammoth rally addressed by Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King was so impressed by the unity of the strikers and the community that he planned to return to Memphis March 22 to lead a march on City Hall.

Early on March 22, the worst snowstorm in the history of Memphis hit and closed down the city. Dr. King was unable to reach the city and the march was rescheduled for March 29.

Memphis was paralyzed by 17 inches of snow which clogged streets, since the sanitation workers who are on strike would normally help clear the streets.

One striker observed: "Maybe the mayor should try to get an injunction against God. He's on our side!"

Earlier a peaceful march of ministers, strikers, and sympathizers through the downtown area was turned into violence when Memphis police suddenly sprayed the marchers with Mace chemical gas. Several marchers were beaten, including a 74-year-old sanitation worker who had to be hospitalized.

Ciampa, Jones, Lucy, Paisley and Epps were among those gassed. Ciampa was sprayed once and collapsed in the street. Other police then joined in spraying the nearly-unconscious filed staff director as he lay helpless in the gutter.

Daily marches through the downtown area have enforced a boycott of merchants. The boycott has cut sales in the downtown area from 40 to 45 percent.

Strong backing is being given the strikers by other Memphis unions.