Jan. 26, 2018

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UUP to join Feb. 1 remembrance of Memphis sanitation strike

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UUP will join with unionists around the country Feb. 1 to commemorate two Memphis sanitation workers whose deaths 50 years ago led to a historic strike—and the last great civil rights cause of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life.

“The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike is remembered as a major victory in the Civil Rights Movement, and also as the cause for which Dr. King gave his life,” said UUP President Fred Kowal. “At a time when our country is so bitterly divided by the forces of evil, hatred and racism, it is all the more important that we stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in labor to remember this courageous struggle in Memphis a half-century ago.”

Remembering a terrible sacrifice

UUP will observe a moment of silence at 1 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 1 in solidarity with the AFT, AFSCME and other unions. You can confirm your participation in the moment of silence and search for a local event to attend at

Workers will reflect on the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, black sanitation workers who were crushed when they sought shelter from a downpour in the compactor of their truck.

The city’s mostly black sanitation workers went out on strike less than two weeks later. They had organized under AFSME Local 1733 in 1964, but the city never recognized the union and had allowed dangerous on-the-job conditions for black sanitation workers to continue, even as white sanitation workers enjoyed better work conditions and concessions.

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King, above, center, traveled to Memphis three times in March and April to support the strike, in which a black teen protestor was shot to death by police. King was fatally shot on his third visit to Memphis while standing on the balcony of his hotel, April 4, 1968. The strike ended April 16, 1968, with recognition of the union and wage increases for the workers.

The struggle continues

A half-century later, union members should bear witness to the Memphis strike as they prepare for the 2018 midterm elections, “which have taken on an urgency we have never experienced in our lifetimes,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement about the Feb. 1 commemoration.

Added Weingarten: “We must fight the anti-democratic, nativist, racist, incompetent, oligarchical, authoritarian, cruel instincts of this president and his cronies. This is a which-side-are-you-on moment.”

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