MEMPHIS – Fifty years after the historic Memphis sanitation worker strike that anchored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, fast-food workers in two-dozen cities across the Mid-South walked off their jobs Monday and thousands of cooks and cashiers rallied nationwide to carry on the sanitation strikers’ fight for higher pay, union rights, and respect on the job regardless of race.
Carrying signs that declared “I AM a Man,” “I AM a Woman” and “I AM Worth More,” strikers from across the Mid-South converged on a downtown Memphis McDonald’s Monday during the lunchtime rush. Meanwhile, from Boston to Chicago to Oakland, fast-food workers in the Fight for $15 waged midday protests at McDonald’s stores and announced they will participate in six weeks of civil disobedience starting on Mother’s Day as part of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
“We’re fighting for the exact same thing sanitation workers fought for 50 years ago,” said Frances Holmes, a striking McDonald’s worker in St. Louis. “We can’t end poverty or stamp out racism in this country unless everyone can earn a wage they can live on and has the right to organize. And we will keep on striking, protesting, and even risking arrest until that dream becomes a reality.”
Thousands of workers are preparing to march Monday afternoon from Clayborn Temple to Memphis City Hall – the same route sanitation workers walked 50 years ago. The march will be led by strikers in the Fight for $15 from across the Mid-South, who will carry a banner that reads, “We Remember, We Fight”; Memphis sanitation workers who participated in the 1968 strike; the Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival; Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union; and Coalition of Black Trade Unionists Founder Bill Lucy, who collaborated with Dr. King during the 1968 strike.
The protests come as workers’ demands for strong organizations grow from coast to coast. Last Friday, Milwaukee service workers joined with owners of the Milwaukee Bucks to announce a new organization that will be a pipeline for more than 1,000 jobs that pay at least $15/hour and guarantee workers the right to a union at the Bucks arena set to open this fall. Today, workers at Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, Wis., will build on that victory with a rally to demand $15/hour and union rights.
The Memphis sanitation strike began Feb. 12, 1968, after two sanitation workers were crushed to death by faulty equipment. Hundreds of Black men went on strike for recognition of their union, a local of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and demanded a raise to $2 an hour – the equivalent of $15.73 today after inflation. Strikers marched daily from Clayborn Temple to Memphis City Hall holding signs declaring, “I AM A MAN.”
“We didn’t strike just so that the city would recognize our union, we did it to demand that we be treated with basic dignity and respect,” said Rev. Cleophus Smith, who was one of the Memphis sanitation workers fighting for higher pay and a strong union in 1968. “Sadly, the racism and greed that forced us to the strike lines in 1968 is still alive today. I’m proud to march alongside fast-food workers who are continuing our struggle.”
The actions in Memphis Monday marked the start of a nationwide tour by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival shining a light on the harshest poverty in the nation and highlighting the leadership of poor and disenfranchised people who are organizing for change in their communities. Leaders of the campaign joined McDonald’s cooks and cashiers on the strike line Monday morning, hearing directly from workers who are forced to rely on food stamps and other forms of public assistance because their minimum wage paychecks are not enough to support their families.
From Memphis, leaders of the campaign will travel to Marks, Miss., the Quitman, County town Dr. King visited in March 1968, witnessing poverty that brought him to tears and provided the inspiration for the first Poor People’s Campaign. The visits to Memphis Monday and Marks Tuesday kick off a two-month journey stretching from Appalachia to the Rust Belt to the Pacific Northwest, highlighting both the stark poverty that plagues the United States 50 years after Dr. King launched the Poor People’s Campaign and the inspiring organizing seeking to combat it.
“Today we remember the struggle of garbage workers who simply wanted dignity and a living wage, freedom in a racist society, and to exercise their vote as free men,” said Rev. Dr. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival. “As we remember them, the only way we can pay homage is to say: Racism is garbage. Sexism is garbage. Mistreating women is garbage. Not paying people a living wage is garbage. Trying to undermine union rights is garbage. It is time for a movement in America that will take out the garbage and replace it with a new community, new understanding, new fairness, new equality and new wages.”
The wave of protests comes as politicians have cut minimum wages and attacked unions across the country, disproportionately harming workers of color. Workers in predominantly Black cities including St. Louis, Mo., Kansas City, Mo., and Birmingham, Ala., have had minimum wage increases nullified by white state lawmakers in recent years. Meanwhile, union jobs in state and local government – which have historically provided a pathway to the middle class for workers of color – have been under attack by corporate-backed politicians like Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has refused to bargain a contract with state employees for nearly two years in an effort to break their union.
And people of color remain over-represented in low-paying industries like fast-food: more than half of Black workers and nearly 60 percent of Latino workers are paid less than $15, according to an analysis by the National Employment Law Project.
“The message of sanitation workers fifty years ago is the same message spoken by fast-food workers today: I AM A MAN. They carry the fight forward so that the value of their work is reflected in dignity and fair treatment in their workplace,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union. “The fast-food strikers told the sanitation strikers, ‘they treat us like they treated you, like all we have is hands and feet and we don’t have heads or hearts.’”
The Fight for $15 has built deep ties with civil rights groups and leaders over the past five years. U.S. Rep. John Lewis joined Atlanta fast-food workers on a strike line in August 2013, encouraging them to, “Keep walking, keep marching, keep talking, keep pushing.” In the summer of 2014, the NAACP passed a resolution backing the Fight for $15; in the winter of 2015 Memphis sanitation workers who participated in the 1968 strike implored a gathering of fast-food workers at Dr. King’s church in Atlanta to keep fighting for $15 and union rights; and faith leaders of all stripes have echoed the workers’ moral argument for dignity on the job. Workers have developed deep ties with the Movement for Black Lives and marched alongside activists calling for racial justice from Ferguson, Mo. to Baton Rouge, La, to Milwaukee, Wisc. In April 2017, workers in the Fight for $15 joined together with the Movement for Black Lives for a wave of “Fight Racism, Raise Pay” protests across the country. Members of the Memphis chapter of the Fight for $15 participated in the movement that led to the removal of Confederate monuments in the city late last year.
“What’s happening in Memphis and around the country isn’t just a commemoration, it’s a call to action,” said Bill Lucy, who collaborated with King during the 1968 strike. “Workers are drawing inspiration from the heroes of Memphis and carrying their fight against poverty and prejudice forward to advance freedom for all working people.”
The Fight for $15 has spurred wage hikes for 22 million underpaid workers, including more than 10 million who are on their way to $15 an hour, by convincing everyone from voters to politicians to corporations to raise pay. Workers have taken what many viewed as an outlandish proposition – $15 an hour– and made it the new labor standard in New York, California, Seattle and Washington, D.C. Home care workers in Massachusetts and Oregon won $15 an hour statewide minimum wages and companies including Target, Duke University, Facebook, Aetna, Amalgamated Bank, JP Morgan Chase and Nationwide Insurance have raised pay to $15 an hour or higher. Workers in nursing homes, public schools and hospitals have won $15 an hour via collective bargaining.