After 50 Years, Sanitation Workers Still Fight for DignityBreaking News
tags: racism, civil rights, labor, urban history
“All labor has dignity,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told striking sanitation workers in Memphis more than 50 years ago.
“One day,” he said, “our society will come to respect the sanitation worker, if it is to survive. For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician. For if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant.”
I never paid much attention to what sanitation workers did until a small group of them went on strike in early May in my hometown, New Orleans. They are called “hoppers,” because they spend all day hopping on and off the backs of trucks, rounding up garbage containers, and using their strength to dump them into the barrel that crushes the trash.
My Uncle Jonathan is one of them, and he asked me to help him and his fellow Black workers organize their City Waste Union in the first weeks of the strike. Their fight, which has now gone on for more than two months, has shown me more clearly than ever before that Black people are still shackled to a cycle of generational poverty and mistreatment.
They often carry signs that say, “I Am a Man,” as they protest. It’s the iconic sign Memphis sanitation workers first carried in 1968, in their bitter, 65-day strike, during which Dr. King was assassinated after coming to support them. I am only 25, but it’s obvious to me that my uncle and his co-workers are still waging the same civil rights battle 52 years later.
In 1968, a living wage and safer working conditions were among the Memphis strikers’ top demands — the same things New Orleans strikers are asking for in 2020. The men in Memphis worked full time, but their pay was so low that they still qualified for food stamps.
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