A series of black-and-white photographs on display in the AFL-CIO lobby that were taken during the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike brought back memories of that time to MTD President Michael Sacco.
Taking a break during the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting on March 22, Sacco spotted a photo featuring two union members in solidarity marching with “MTD New York Port Council, AFL-CIO Supports Memphis Sanitation Workers” picket signs. (The photo was taken by Richard Copley.)
“Paul Hall [who headed the MTD in 1968] was a big supporter of the strikers,” Sacco recalled. “The MTD and the Seafarers [Union] committed a lot of resources to help those workers.”
The Memphis strike began in February 1968 after two men were crushed in the back of a malfunctioning garbage truck as they sought shelter from a rainstorm. The sanitation crews had been trying for more than a year for union recognition. MTD-affiliated AFSCME sent national staff, including future MTD Executive Board Member Bill Lucy, to assist the workers. The death of the two workers led to a mass walkout. Picketers marched daily through the streets of Memphis with a sign that has become iconic – “I AM A MAN”.
A month into the walkout, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to show his support. He was in Memphis preparing for a march when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Shortly thereafter, the city of Memphis recognized the union – ASFCME Local 1733 – as the representative for the workers.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the strike and the death of Dr. King. AFSCME has organized a series of activities in Memphis during the first week of April culminating in a march on April 4. More information may be found at IAM2018.org.