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Workplace Dignity Struggles Persist 50 Years After Tragic Deaths

In a recent newspaper column, an AFSCME California member describes how workplace dignity remains evasive, 50 years after the Memphis, Tennessee, sanitation worker’s strike.
Workplace Dignity Struggles Persist 50 Years After Tragic Deaths
By Michael Avant, Executive Vice President, AFSCME Local 3299 ·

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from a column published by The San Diego Union-Tribune. Other AFSCME California sanitation workers who joined together in Council 36 – Locals 127 in San Diego, 3061 in Ontario and 1734 in Midway City – also plan to honor Echol Cole and Robert Walker on February 1, when a national Moment of Silence is planned. For more details, visit

February 1 is a historic day in a generations-long struggle for civil rights and workplace dignity in America. This year, it will mark 50 years since the tragic deaths of Memphis sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker.

At the time, Memphis’ mostly African-American sanitation workers faced a degrading, unsafe, plantation-style working environment in the heart of the Jim Crow South. The city government refused to recognize the workers’ union, AFSCME.

After Cole and Walker were crushed to death when their truck’s compactor malfunctioned, 1,300 of their colleagues risked everything to mount the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968. They marched the streets carrying placards with four simple words proclaiming their basic humanity: “I am a man.” …

Fifty years ago, Cole, Walker and Dr. King inspired so much of the vital social justice work that continues today. One need not look hard to find the threads of #Iam in the struggle for #dreamers, the stories of #metoo and #blacklivesmatter, and in my own union’s work to support students and low-wage workers at the University of California. …

Read the entire column.

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