February 1st, 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of two sanitation workers being killed in Memphis, TN. Their deaths led to the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike which eventually led to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4th, 1968.

I am asking that all ATU local officers and members pause for a moment of silence on February 1st, 2018, in memory of these two workers that were killed.

You can also commemorate this tragic anniversary by changing your Facebook profile photo that day to “I AM MAN” or “I AM WOMAN” picket signs that were used by these sanitation workers during their famous strike. You can do this by going to the ATU Facebook here and clicking “try it”.

On that fateful day, one of the sanitation trucks had a mechanical failure that dragged the two men on the back of the compressor truck into its rotating bin, leaving only their legs exposed. The two men, Robert Walker and Echol Cole, died.

Memphis had replaced its aging flatbed garbage trucks with early versions of compressor trucks in the late 1950s. While truck crews were often four men, only two could fit into the driver’s cab. That left the other crew members to either walk alongside the moving truck, or holding on to its sides for the frequent stops to haul and empty 55-gallon drums and open containers filled with garbage.

In addition to these unsafe and dangerous work conditions, these sanitation workers, the majority of who were black, were treated with the utmost disrespect. The black sanitation workers received only one city-issued uniform but no facilities in which they could change their clothes. When the men took lunch breaks, they were forbidden from using shelters in residential neighborhoods, due to complaints of Negro sanitation workers having picnics.

In return for their hard work, the workers were paid little more than $1 dollar an hour. Although the City Council voted in early 1968 for a pay raise for its sanitation workers, Mayor Henry Loeb vetoed it.

Of the approximate 1,300 workers, less than 250 were members of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees more commonly known as AFSCME.

The Memphis sanitation strike lasted from February 12th until April 16th 1968. The strike resulted in the union being recognized by the city of Memphis and higher wages, better and safe work conditions.

Their story was documented in the movie, “At the River I Stand”, you can watch a short summary of the movie here. 

We hope you take part in this moment of silence on February 1, 2018, to mark this important day in history for the labor movement and the civil rights movement.

Any questions please contact my office.

In solidarity,
Larry Hanley
International President

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