Safety on the job was the issue that sparked the historic strike by sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. On February 1 of that year two Black sanitation workers took refuge in the back of a garbage truck to get out of the rain. Under the rules of racial segregation at the time, Black workers on the crew were not allowed to leave the trucks to seek cover during inclement weather if they were in a white neighborhood.
An electrical short in the wiring of the old and poorly maintained trucks caused the compressor to start running, and Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death. The Memphis Sanitation Department gave the families of each worker a months pay plus $500 for funeral expenses. No city official attended the funerals and no further compensation was extended. The average wage for Black sanitation workers was $1.70 an hour.
On the same rainy day, 22 Black sewer workers had been sent home without pay. Their white supervisors were retained, and after an hour when the rain stopped went to work for the day. The Black workers complained they were given two hours call-up pay, while their white supervisors were paid for the complete day.
On February 11, T.O. Jones, president of all-Black Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, held a meeting attended by more than 700 union members to discuss what to do about the deaths, partial pay on rainy days, and safety conditions. The city refused to negotiate with the local and the strike was on.
The walkout quickly became the center of the general fight against segregation. Blacks made up 40 percent of the citys population but held only 8 percent of city jobs. The best positions were designated customary white jobs in 34 of the citys departments. Fourteen departments had no Black employees and 23 had fewer than three Blacks.
The strikers demanded union recognition with a written contract, effective grievance procedures, dues check-off, merit promotion without regard to race, equal treatment in the retirement system, overtime pay, and wage increases. When it became clear that City Council hearings on the strikers demands were just a stalling tactic, the Black community launched a campaign of protest marches and boycotts, which also involved high school students. The struggle received support of several union bodies, including the Memphis and Tennessee AFL-CIO.
On March 18 Martin Luther King Jr., addressed a rally of 12,000 at the Mason Temple. The strike remained solid with fewer than 100 strikers crossing the line. Less than 70 of the citys 190 trucks were in operation.
King returned to the city on April 4 where he was assassinated. Some 65,000 National Guardsmen were deployed to quell revolts in Black communities across the country. On April 7, 1968, some 8,000 people marched in Memphis. The city then recognized Local 1733.
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