1968 New York and Memphis: Sanitation workers on strike
Published Jan 8, 2011 7:49 AM
In February 1968, some 7,000 sanitation workers gathered in New York’s
City Hall Park and voted to go on strike to get a decent contract. For years
the city had an unfair official policy: Sanitation worker salaries had to be
lower than police and firefighters’ salaries, and sanitation workers had
to contribute more from their paychecks, but got lower pensions, compared to
police and firefighters. The 1968 strike continued from Feb. 2 through Feb. 10,
despite the media’s demonization of the sanitation workers.
Union President John Delury was jailed. New York City Mayor John Lindsay asked
the city’s largest worker union, District Council 37, to take over the
duties of the sanitation workers and break the strike. When DC37 refused to
scab, Lindsay asked New York state Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to send the National
Guard to pick up New York’s garbage.
DC37 and the other unions threatened a general strike of all public city
workers and possibly all private sector workers in the city if the National
Guard was brought in. Only then did Rockefeller flinch. He declined
Lindsay’s request and the strike was settled.
During the nine days of this strike, not one snowflake fell in New York City.
Out of concern for public safety, during the strike the Uniformed
Sanitationmen’s Association (USA) — IBT Local 831 — even took
steps to safeguard the health and safety of special needs communities of New
York City by collecting garbage from schools, municipal hospitals and nursing
Two days after New York’s 1968 strike ended, the sanitation workers of
Memphis, Tenn., also went on strike.
In November 2007, current USA President Harry Nespoli and other union leaders
travelled to Memphis to meet with veterans of the Memphis strike. When New York
City established the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an official
holiday, it did not become a holiday for the uniformed forces — that is,
police, firefighters, and sanitation workers. Nespoli successfully negotiated
with the city to make King’s birthday a holiday for sanitation
Nespoli said, “We wanted to recognize Dr. King’s contributions to
racial equality and labor justice — in particular his relationship to the
working men and women of America.” On Jan. 17, 2008, the union held a
special meeting to celebrate this event.
Jesse Epps is a veteran labor organizer who was personally involved with the
1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ “I Am a Man” strike and was
with King when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. King had travelled to
Memphis to show solidarity with the striking sanitation workers.
At the 2008 commemoration meeting, Epps said, “It was you who gave them
[Memphis Sanitation Workers] the courage to act. It was these men from New
York, if I may use the colloquialism, that fired the shot and made America
stand up and its conscience to be pricked, and compelled Dr. King and others
like him to come into the fray.”
Some of the material in this article can be found in the book “Dignity
and Respect: the History of Local 831” by Kevin Rice, published by Local
831 in 2009. The book’s Chapter 14 ends with an eloquent and poetic
portrait of the sanitation worker:
“Cleaning, not collecting, is the essential job of New York’s
Strongest. Cleaning the streets, collecting the garbage, and removing the snow
all work toward one aim: clearing the way for a city on the move. The job could
be likened to that of clearing the tracks for a great train coming, or of
clearing the runway for an enormous aircraft taking off. Those descriptions,
however, do not capture the rhythm and daily beat that sanitation workers
contribute to the pulse of the city. There is a nurturing aspect to what
sanitation workers do and, in that sense, it is not unlike the farmer who must
clear the land before sowing it; so that the fields will be their most
productive; so that both the land, and the living things on it, will be
fruitful and multiply. It is in that clearing that a home, a family, a city and
a union are built.”
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