History

This is where we come from. This is why our fight matters right now.

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1968. Memphis, Tennessee. The heart of the Jim Crow South.

African American sanitation workers were called “boy.” They faced poverty wages, a plantation-style work environment, and degrading, unsafe working conditions. The city refused to recognize their union, or even their basic humanity.

After two sanitation workers were crushed to death on the job, 1,300 of their AFSCME Local 1733 brothers stood together, risked everything, and went on strike. They demanded dignity and respect. They marched in the streets carrying placards with four simple, but powerful words: “I AM A MAN.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to Memphis to rally the community and express his solidarity because he understood the connection between labor rights, economic rights, human rights, and civil rights. On the evening of April 3 at the historic Mason Temple, the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) International Headquarters, Dr. King delivered his famous “Mountaintop” speech. Less than 24 hours later, he was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of this watershed moment. On April 2-4, 2018, AFSCME, COGIC, and civil, human and workers’ rights leaders will gather in Memphis for a series of events honoring Dr. King’s legacy and the courage and sacrifice of the sanitation workers.

The I AM 2018 initiative is about drawing inspiration from the heroes of Memphis and connecting their struggle to today’s challenges.

I AM 2018 isn’t just a reflection on the past; it’s a call to action for the future. An urgent call to fight poverty and prejudice, advance the freedom of all working people, and remind America that there can be no racial justice without economic justice and no economic justice without racial justice.

 

About AFSCME

AFSCME’s 1.6 million members provide the vital services that make America happen. With members in hundreds of different occupations — from nurses to corrections officers, child care providers to sanitation workers — AFSCME advocates for fairness in the workplace, excellence in public services, and prosperity and opportunity for all working families.

About COGIC

The Church of God in Christ (COGIC) headquartered in Memphis, TN is one of the oldest and largest Pentecostal denominations in the world and the 4th largest Protestant group in the United States, with churches in 87 countries worldwide and a membership of nearly 6.5 million adherents.  

  • Fifty years ago, two garbage collectors in Memphis named Echol Cole and Robert Walker were killed by a faulty truck. Their union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), was already campaigning against the poverty wages, racial degradation, and unsafe working conditions faced by sanitation workers in the city.

    Ten days after Cole’s and Walker’s deaths, AFSCME organized a strike. By late February, the union came close to achieving its goals when city council voted recognize the union and increase pay. Unfortunately, Memphis’s mayor rejected the city council vote, undermining AFSCME’s efforts. The mayor’s anti–civil rights and anti-labor decision only intensified the protest movement.

    The struggle drew the support of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had long maintained that racial and economic equality were inseparable. In late March, when Dr. King, visited Memphis to help lead a march, police clubbed and released tear gas on demonstrators. Undeterred, the protesters continued marching daily and began to carry signs reading “I Am a Man.”

    On April 3rd, Dr. King came back to Memphis and gave his iconic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. The next night, he was assassinated. It was one of the most devastating moments in American history, prompting riots in every major city in America, but the protesters were undeterred and in April the city finally approved increased wages for sanitation workers.

  • Religious leaders supported the movement in ways large and small, from gathering protesters at churches to marching alongside labor organizers. Starting in late February, shortly after Memphis’s mayor refused to recognize the union, 150 clergy members created a citywide group to support sanitation workers. Ministers deliberately got arrested to fill Memphis’s jails and draw attention to the issue. They also asked their congregants to march for the cause and strategically boycott stores, forcing store owners to pressure city hall into negotiating with the union.

    The Mason Temple, part of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) denomination, was a hotbed of pro-union activism. In early March, the church raised funds for strikers with an eight-hour gospel-singing marathon. It was at the Mason Temple where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his rousing “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3rd—the night before he was killed.

  • Martin Luther King’s death precipitated a sea change in the struggle for equality in Memphis. It prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to ask his undersecretary of labor, James Reynolds, to resolve the conflict between the strikers and the Memphis city government. Days after King’s death, tens of thousands of people marched with Coretta Scott King in support of sanitaation workers, and by mid-April, the city council decided to recognize the union and increase pay. It was a historic win.

    But in terms of the movement’s broader goals—securing fair pay, safe working conditions, and equal opportunity for blue-collar workers—much remains to be done. A few examples: About 14 percent of Americans currently live in poverty. In 2015, the median salary for a garbage collector was only $33,800. Today, about 10 percent of workers are members of unions, down from about 28 percent in 1954.

    Income in the United States has become very polarized, as well. The top one percent of earners receives more than 20 percent of all U.S. income; the bottom 50 percent of earners only gets about 12 percent. Wealth also is polarized according to race—the median wealth of white households is about 10 times that of black households and eight times that of Latino households.

    This state of affairs cries out for change and a reenergized movement for economic and social justice.

  • Working people are under siege on many fronts. Here are five areas that need focus and support.

    1. Ensuring that people from all walks of life have access to a high-quality education, from early childhood through college—because low-income children benefit the most from preschool but have the lowest enrollment rates.
    2. Economically developing underserved areas through job training and job creation programs—because according to the Department of Labor, “occupation- and industry-based training programs, including Career Academies, show some promising employment outcomes for youth.”
    3. Reducing and preventing criminal activity—because poor people are likelier to be the victims of crime and convictions put a strain on families.
    4. Supporting families by developing strong and prepared men, women, and children—because having a caring relationship with a parental figure is critical to young children’s healthy brain development.
    5. Empowering underserved communities economically by promoting financial literacy—because analysis suggests that about one-third of wealth inequality can be attributed to disparities in financial knowledge.
  • Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 is a case that the Supreme Court will hear in February of 2018, with a decision expected in the summer. It could have devastating consequences for working people who depend on unions to defend their rights and improve their working conditions. At issue are fair-share fees, which are collected from workers who benefit from organizing (even if they are not a member of the union).

    The plaintiff in the case, Mark Janus, says that having to pay fair-share fees to public employee unions violates his First Amendment rights, since he disagrees with some of the union’s decisions.

    Unions say they need fair-share fees to boost their collective bargaining power, which benefits members and nonmembers alike. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiff, public employee unions will have to bargain for nonmembers without receiving any support from them—AKA those workers would get a free ride, which is unsustainable and endangers unions.

    See AFSCME president Lee Saunders explain how the decision could jeopardize workers’ rights:

    <iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/a8mfEMd0B8U” frameborder=”0″ allow=”autoplay; encrypted-media” allowfullscreen></iframe>

    Public employees do not have to pay fair-share fees in right-to-work states, which has nasty ramifications—those employees earn $6,109 less annually than their counterparts in fair-share states. If Janus wins, unions could completely lose their power to secure retirement or health benefits for their workers.