Memphis Comes To Washington

The 1,300 sanitation workers who participated in the historic 1968 strike in Memphis, Tenn. – members of AFSCME Local 1733 – were enshrined Friday into the U.S. Department of Labor’s “Labor Hall of Fame.”

Eight of the sanitation workers met President Barack Obama at the White House and later attended the induction ceremony before a full house in the Grand Hall of the Department of Labor. One of them, Joe Warren, had celebrated his 90th birthday just the day before arriving in Washington.

The induction of the sanitation workers into the Hall of Fame marks the first time a group of workers has been included for “taking collective action,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis.

Alvin Turner, one of the eight representatives of the strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to his last fight for justice, said at the ceremony that Dr. King “didn’t die in vain” when he was assassinated in Memphis, just 12 days before the strike was settled. “If it hadn’t been for Dr. King coming to Memphis, we wouldn’t have won.” Nor would they have won, he added, “if it hadn’t been for unity” of the 1,300 workers themselves.

Turner, who started with the Memphis Sanitation Department in 1958, then turned his remarks to the current battle over collective bargaining throughout the country. “We’ve got a fight coming up now. I can see they’re trying to balance budgets on the backs of poor people… You can bet your bottom dollar on that.”

Solis said the sanitation workers’ stand against injustice “showed your countrymen that there is dignity in all work. You made historic progress not only for public sector employees, but for all workers … and we honor you for bringing about a turning point in the Civil Rights movement in the fight for social and economic justice.”

Among those in attendance at the Labor Department ceremony were AFSCME Pres. Gerald W. McEntee, Sec.-Treas. Lee A. Saunders, Martin Luther King III, and former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young, who delivered the invocation.

A final induction ceremony will be held in Memphis on June 4.