Today, April 4, marks the 44th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the strike by the sanitation workers of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1733 — two events that changed America and forever linked civil rights and workers’ rights.
For the members of AFSCME in Memphis, Tenn., and across the country, this is a day that holds special significance. The events we will commemorate represent both a high-water mark in our fight to ensure that all workers have a voice, and a violent end for a truth-telling, eloquent leader who was simultaneously one of our nation’s greatest champions and fiercest critics.
This year also marks the 75th anniversary of AFSCME. The state workers of Wisconsin who formed our union at the height of the Great Depression wanted the basics: better pay and better working conditions. But, just like the sanitation workers who went on strike in Memphis in 1968, they also wanted respect. Those Wisconsin state workers banded together to form this union because they understood that as long as their jobs were subject to the patronage system and dependent upon whom they knew instead of what they knew, they had no rights and no voice at all.
Decades later, it was that same desire to be treated with dignity and respect that compelled the sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1733 to stand their ground. They could have gone along with the status quo, complaining only to one another about unsafe working conditions, awful pay and nearly nonexistent benefits — especially given the daunting twin evils of racism and poverty they faced. It is always our choice whether to accept what we are given or demand what we deserve. The sanitation workers of Local 1733 chose to make a demand.
It was difficult for them, as it is for any workers who stand up to powerful interests. Dr. King was drawn to their fight because he understood that workers’ rights, human rights and civil rights are intertwined. His perspective was that they could not be viewed separately or pursued as individual aims. Believing in one meant believing in — and fighting for — all.