On April 4, 1968 at 6:01 p.m. local time, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life was cut tragically short by an assassin’s bullet. Dr. King was in Memphis to support sanitation workers who were on strike following the deaths of two of their colleagues who were crushed in a malfunctioning vehicle two months earlier.
Fifty years later, several hundred Teamsters and more than 10,000 union supporters took to the streets of Memphis to honor King and his legacy.
“Dr. King knew that civil rights and labor rights were one and the same,” said Jim Hoffa, Teamsters General President. “He knew that social justice and economic justice go hand in hand.”
In 1968, the strikers carried the iconic signs that proclaimed “I AM A MAN.” Fifty years later, the marchers carried “I AM” as a symbolic gesture to the 1968 sanitation workers and a reminder that there remains much to be done.
I AM A MAN is about dignity and respect on the job.
“The true legacy of Dr. King is that the commitment to do what’s right when you’ve been wronged is still alive,” said Greg Floyd, International Vice President and President of Local 237 in New York.“And it will stay alive because his inspiration is deep seated and draws upon the best instincts of each generation.”
Hoffa and Teamsters from across the nation participated in numerous events throughout the week in Memphis.
The Teamsters and the Tennessee chapter of the NAACP held a community meeting featuring XPO warehouse workers and their fight for a voice on the job after one of their co-workers, Linda Neal, had a heart attack and died on the job—after supervisors ignored her repeated requests for a break.
Her colleagues talked about how supervisors refused to let them do CPR or call 911 and made everyone continue working, even if it required stepping over her body. They also shared stories of sexual harassment and terrible working conditions.
“XPO management forces workers to remove their bras at the security checkpoint,” said Elizabeth Howley. “We see snakes, rats, lizards and bugs. And no one is allowed to do CPR. We don’t deserve to be treated like this. No one does.”
The warehouse workers are organizing to gain a voice on the job.
“My co-workers and I are subjected to unsafe working conditions and have dealt with sexual harassment on the job, but we will not allow XPO to continue treating us as second-class citizens,” said Lakeisha Nelson. “We will make our voices heard and we will fight. We are worth fighting for.”
The appalling working conditions these XPO workers face shows how far we have to go to achieve Dr. King’s dream.
Jose Ramirez and Ryan Janota, two XPO drivers from Aurora, Ill. who were illegally fired for supporting the union, also addressed the community meeting.
“I was unjustly terminated by XPO for supporting and participating in a union action at my facility—a right that is protected under federal law,” Ramirez said. “My belief in the Teamsters has only strengthened because of this incident. We will continue our fight against XPO’s toxic culture.”
In the weeks leading up to the Memphis actions, two Teamster waste workers died on the job.
Jeremy Gordon of Local 350 in Northern California, and Kenneth Simpson of Local 600 in St. Louis, each had families who are now suffering the grief of losing a loved one on the job. Both of their deaths are under investigation.
Today, Local 667 represents Memphis waste workers at Republic.
“The Memphis sanitation strike wasn’t just a union action. Its foundation was based around these workers’ basic civil and human rights,” said Ron Herrera, International Vice President and Director of the Teamsters Solid Waste and Recycling Division. “Workers today continue to build upon the legacy of the Memphis strikers and their commitment to fight against racial and economic injustice.”
Republic Teamsters in Memphis ratified a historic new contract just days before the rally.
The company demanded significant concessions early, but Local 667 Secretary-Treasurer James Jones and the negotiating team held firm. The new contract includes an extra vacation day and an immediate $4-an-hour increase.
“My committee worked hard during the negotiations,” Jones said. “We stuck together to ward off concession attempts by the company. These guys deserved the recognition of standing on stage and showing the strength of the 2018 sanitation workers.”
Local 667 Republic workers Carlos Wilson, Kevin Clark and Terry Moss were joined at the I AM march by three waste workers from New York City’s Local 813, Gustavo Deleon, Joseph Ostro and Raul Borrero. They joined Hoffa on stage and led the Teamster delegation in the march.
Decency and Respect
About 20 Teamster drivers and monitors from Durham School Services in Memphis joined Hoffa at Ms. Girlee’s Soul Food Restaurant to discuss issues facing the workers. Across North America, workers at Durham and its parent company National Express (NEX) are faced with harassment and disrespect at the hands of their employer. Hoffa vowed to keep fighting for the Memphis workers and all NEX/Durham employees.
“Durham just doesn’t get it,” Hoffa said. “One third of their workers are already under a Teamster contract. We are united and we are going to stand together to demand that all of our sisters and brothers at Durham are treated with decency and respect.”
Ms. Girlee’s was a fitting venue for Teamster members and Hoffa to come together in solidarity for the basic rights of Durham school bus drivers around the country. Ms. Girlee’s is owned by 1968 sanitation striker Baxter Leach and his family.
Memphis is one of Durham’s largest contracts in North America and the workers are members of Local 984.
The morning of April 4, 2018 was a cool 40 degrees in Memphis, but that didn’t stop more than 10,000 union supporters from rallying and marching in honor of Dr. King.
The crowd heard from numerous speakers including the Rev. William Barber from North Carolina and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Performers including Sheila E. and Common kept the crowd moving, but it was the 1968 strikers that grabbed the crowd’s attention.
Baxter Leach and Alvin Turner addressed the 2016 Teamsters International Convention and have worked with the Teamsters to speak with and organize waste workers in the south. Unfortunately, Turner passed away last year (see inset). However, Leach took the microphone and gave a big shout out to the assistant director of the Teamsters Waste Division, Chuck Stiles.
The marchers then headed on a nearly two-mile march to the historic Mason Temple where Dr. King gave his famous “Mountaintop” speech the night before he was killed.
Waving Teamster banners and placards, the Teamsters could be heard chanting “Who are we? Teamsters!” and “No Justice! No Peace!” from blocks away.
“Dr. King told us that ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’” Hoffa said. “Today, millions of American workers need government assistance to make ends meet. It’s a disgrace. We are the richest country in the world but our workers need food stamps to feed their families. This has to change.”
Alvin Turner Way
Teamsters Remember Union Ally, Civil Rights Figure
1968 sanitation striker Alvin Turner embodied the trade union spirit. In 2016, he addressed the Teamsters International Convention and told the delegates, “We cannot go backward, we must go forward.”
Turner passed away in September 2017 at his home in Memphis.
“The word ‘hero’ is thrown around way too easy,” said Chuck Stiles, assistant director of the Teamsters Waste Division. “Alvin Turner was a hero. He was a wealth of knowledge and he never stopped fighting for workers.”
On April 7, 2018, Turner was honored by the city of Memphis and Local 667 at a ceremony renaming his home street “Alvin Turner Way.”
“Alvin Turner was a great friend of the Teamsters,” said Ron Herrera, Director of the Teamsters Solid Waste, Recycling and Related Industries Division. “He will be missed but never forgotten.”