The Teamsters Union is mourning the death of Baxter Leach, who participated in the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and who has stood with the Teamsters over the years to help raise standards for workers in the waste industry.
“Baxter was a real American hero. He exemplified everything that being a Teamster is all about. His presence commanded attention,” said James Jones, President of Local 667 in Memphis. “The community embraced him as he embraced it. When he was around, you could feel the history. Sitting and talking with him was an honor. He will truly be missed.”
Originally from Mississippi, and a son of sharecroppers, Leach had to quit school at the age of 14 to help care for his parents and 10 siblings after his father fell ill leaving him with little education. As a result, Leach was forced to work in dangerous conditions for low wages as a sanitation worker when he moved to Memphis in 1960.
“I would like everyone to know what it meant to be raised in the South at that time in American History. I have lived in the South my entire life and was in awe of Baxter’s life,” said Chuck Stiles, Assistant Director of the Teamsters Solid Waste, Recycling and Related Industries Division. “The strength and just pure will to know that a union was the way his family could move up and receive an education and try and live the American dream always gave me inspiration.”
It was in February 1968, after two sanitation workers were crushed to death by a garbage truck while taking cover during a thunderstorm, that Leach could not stay quiet any longer; he knew he had to fight back. Leach soon found himself on the front lines alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in what would become a two-month-long strike and a defining moment in American history.
“On behalf of the 1.4-million-member Teamsters Union, I express condolences to the family and friends of Baxter Leach,” said Jim Hoffa, Teamsters General President. “Nearly a half century ago, Leach and other sanitation workers had the courage to stand up for justice and respect for all waste workers. They held signs that read, ‘I Am a Man,’ and those iconic images will live on in our memories and hearts forever.”
Leach participated in numerous rallies and events for the Teamsters over the years, including speaking at the Teamsters 29th International Convention in 2016.
“Brother Baxter fought for the rights of sanitation workers his entire life. We have lost a legend and part of our history,” said Ron Herrera, Director of the Teamsters Solid Waste, Recycling and Related Industries Division.
In recent years, Leach helped Teamster waste workers, including helping his longtime friend Chuck Stiles organize at WMI; bargaining and strikes at Republic Services; and traveled the nation helping on the “Fight for $15” and other working family issues. He has also been Grand Marshall for Dr. King Celebrations in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Memphis, and was honored by President Barack Obama who noted that men like Leach were the reason that he (Obama) even had the right to run for president.
“MLK came down here [Memphis] for the sanitation workers, and I marched with him, but he came down here for everybody. And I am proud to be here to continue the struggle and fight for this generation. For workers’ rights, for civil rights” — Baxter Leach