Fast food workers strike in the South

March 2018 Memphis
Striking sanitation workers march in Memphis in 1968. (Charlie Kelly/AP)

By ANN MONTAGUE

Activists with Fight For $15 renewed their struggle on Feb. 12 with rallies and strikes throughout the South in remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the Memphis, Tenn., sanitation worker’s strike. Fight For 15 teamed up with civil rights leader William Barber for a day of action in support of racial justice. They called on fast food workers to strike in two dozen Southern cities to mark the anniversary. Events also were held in cities outside the South, such as Kansas City, Detroit, and Las Vegas.

Sanitation workers in Memphis walked off their jobs on Feb. 12, 1968, after two workers were crushed to death when a trash compression mechanism malfunctioned. Some 1300 workers launched a two-month strike to protest dangerous working conditions, poor benefits, and poverty wages. They demanded that the city of Memphis recognize their union and a minimum wage of $2 an hour.

Each day of the strike, workers marched from Clayborn Temple to Memphis City Hall, staring down mace, teargas, police dogs, and cops with shotguns. They wore signs that said, “I am a man.”

This year, cooks and cashiers in the fast-food industry throughout Memphis went on strike, demanding $15 an hour and union rights. They marched from Clayborn Temple to Memphis City hall—the same route the sanitation strikers marched 50 years ago.

The strikers are building toward a season of direct action and civil disobedience that will start on May 13 and continue through June 21 to fulfill Martin Luther King’s goal of bringing the needs of poor people directly to the nation’s capital. King’s plan, cut short by his death, was for a multiracial coalition of the poor to descend on Washington for mass civil disobedience that would block traffic and shut down the city. The demand would be for action to end poverty, hunger, and homelessness.

King came to Memphis several times during the sanitation workers’ strike. He spoke to a huge mass meeting on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated, saying, “We have got to give ourselves to this struggle to the end.”

In that spirit, Shavonda Wilson, a Wendy’s worker and Fight For 15 activist who makes $7.55 an hour, told the striking workers, “My mother told me when I was growing up, ‘if you want change you better be ready to fight for it.’ That is the lesson I teach my kids and hope they learn when they see me chanting in the streets. Because in Memphis, and across the country, the fight started by sanitation workers 50 years ago continues.”

 

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