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Fifty Years Later, The Struggle Continues

Photo Credit: Richard Copley
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Maurice Spivey, a Memphis sanitation worker and member of AFSCME Local 1733, takes pride in serving his community. Every day, he and his co-workers give back to their neighbors and to the city they call home.

Just as important, Spivey says, “We’re holding up Dr. King’s blood-soaked banner.”

He’s referring to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s role in the 1968 Memphis, Tennessee, Sanitation Workers’ Strike, and the 1,300 sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1733 – Spivey’s forebears – whose historic strike for better pay, better treatment and above all, for dignity, forced the city of Memphis to meet the union’s long-ignored demands. It was in Memphis that Dr. King fought in solidarity with the workers and where, on April 4, 1968, he gave his life for their cause.

Despite the pride of serving their communities, sanitation work is one of the most dangerous and thankless jobs in America.

Though things are better than in 1968, the working conditions for sanitation workers in Memphis remain tough and many items on the strikers’ wish list remains unfulfilled. One reason for this is a push to privatize sanitation workers, which AFSCME is fighting.

On the Ground

At each stop sanitation workers make, they’ll drag garbage cans weighing more than 200 pounds each from the curb to a mechanical lift attached to their truck. As the lift dumps the contents into the belly of the truck, the workers must turn away to avoid the dangerous – and sometimes poisonous – backsplash of liquids that ricochet off the sides of the truck.

In one day, says Spivey, a sanitation worker might haul as many 300 cans.

The insides of the garbage cans are only part of the daily ordeal. There are the alley weeds that grow several feet high, clawing at crew members as they navigate narrow, cluttered alleys. There are the spiders, too, which Spivey says grow as “big as your hand.”

And then there’s the heat. In summer, Memphis temperatures can reach 100 degrees or more, and for many crew members, who work on trucks without air-conditioning, the heat, combined with the temperature from the engine’s motor, becomes unbearable.

Another longtime Memphis sanitation worker, Adrian Rogers, says casually, “I can expect to end up in the E.R. at least once a summer.”

Still, Spivey and Rogers acknowledge that by banding together, sanitation workers in Memphis have been able to make life better on the job and for their families.

As full-time city workers and AFSCME members, they enjoy health benefits, job security and most importantly, a seat at the table to negotiate improvements for their families and communities. At the top of their list right now: getting working air-conditioning in their trucks (most have none) and securing hazard pay.

In fact, what might be surprising is not how far the AFSCME sanitation workers in Memphis have come since 1968, but the fact that for others, far too little has changed.

Pictured: Seay memorial. Member-provided photo.
Pictured: Seay memorial. Member-provided photo.

Living in Fear

In addition to full-time, AFSCME-represented sanitation workers like Maurice Spivey and Adrian Rogers, Memphis, like many other cities, also employs a workforce of so-called “contingent,” or part-time, sanitation workers whose jobs are just as taxing as Spivey and Rogers’ but far more precarious.

One of them was 36-year-old Darryl Seay.

“He had dreamed of being made full time,” recalls Kristy Clark, a crew chief driver who worked alongside Darryl.

This past July, Seay, Clark and a third member of their crew were out on their day’s route. When that third crew member succumbed to heat exhaustion and needed to be rushed to the hospital, Seay and Clark had no choice but to complete their route down a crew member. And as was typical, they were in driving in a truck with no air-conditioning.

Returning to their headquarters, they were sent out a second time. It was on that second loop that Darry Seay died.

Seay, a father of five boys, had been a part-time worker for eight years.

 “He was a good worker,” recalled Kristy Clark. “If he was made permanent, he was going to buy a big house, move his whole family in with him.”

Contingent workers like Darryl Seay, and like Kristy and Adrian Rogers, who themselves toiled for years as part-time workers, are only permitted to work 56 hours every pay period, or about 28 hours per week. It’s not nearly enough to make ends meet. Part-timers generally hold second jobs.

“A part-time worker is in a twilight zone,” Spivey says.

In the hopes of being converted to a coveted full-time position, these part-time workers will remain on with the sanitation department as long as they can, aspiring to the same benefits, salary and security as their full-time counterparts. Just as importantly, there’s the hope of having a voice on the job by joining together in a union.

Right now, contingent workers like Darryl Seay work in fear. If a contingent worker gets injured, for instance, they can’t afford to tell a supervisor and they can’t request time off to see a doctor, whose services they likely wouldn’t be able to afford in any event.

Pictured: Kristy Clark. Member-provided photo.
Pictured: Kristy Clark. Member-provided photo.

Echoes From the Past

The conditions that contingent sanitation workers in Memphis face today are, sadly, not unlike those of 50 years ago.

On Feb. 1, 1968, a storm forced sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker to seek shelter in the back of their garbage truck. Cole, Walker and their co-workers, members of AFSCME Local 1733, had long struggled to gain recognition from the city to improve their working conditions, their pay and their lives.

Among the sanitation workers’ grievances that had been ignored were warnings about faulty, outdated equipment on their trucks. Those warnings proved tragically prophetic that day when the truck’s compactor kicked on, crushing Cole and Walker to death.  

Their co-workers decided they had had enough. They voted to strike, marching in the streets, braving tear gas and nightsticks, under a simple but powerful slogan: I AM A MAN.

Dr. King traveled to Memphis because he believed, as he wrote from the Birmingham, Alabama, jail several years earlier, that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He believed that the needs of African-Americans were “identical with labor’s needs – decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”

Memphis would be Dr. King’s last campaign. Less than 24 hours after delivering his famous “Mountaintop” speech at the Mason temple, he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet. A few weeks later, the strike ended, with the city accepting most of the sanitation workers’ demands.

Honoring the Past, Shaping the Future

Just as their AFSCME sisters and brothers from across the country united behind the Memphis sanitation workers in 1968, AFSCME continues shape the conversation about freedom and opportunity for all working people in this country.

AFSCME, in cooperation with The Church of God in Christ (COGIC), has launched the I AM 2018 campaign to renew our commitment to the cause of the Memphis strikers and Dr. King.

On April 2-4, tens of thousands of workers and their allies will gather in Memphis to make their voices heard. Through rallies, workshops, panel discussions, concerts and more, the vital lessons of the past will be used to chart the way forward.

Through I AM 2018, AFSCME and COGIC will train grassroots activists to re-ignite a national conversation around the issues of racial and economic justice, and lift up the voices of working people in the 2018 elections and beyond.

Learn more about I AM 2018 and find out how you can participate.