Saturday, January 8, 2011

1968 New York and Memphis: Sanitation Workers Strike

By a City Sanitation Department worker
New York

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 homes.

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 workers.

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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