UWUA National Vice President Delivers Speech in Memphis for 50th Anniversary of Sanitation Workers’ Strike

Speech Delivered April 4th by UWUA National Vice President, John Duffy, at I AM 2018 Rally in Memphis, featuring civil rights activists, labor leaders, faith leaders, and elected officials to honor the struggle and sacrifice of the Memphis Sanitation Workers.

Good morning brothers and sisters, AFSCME President Lee Saunders, and AFSCME Local 1733 President Michael Ford.

The events that took place here in Memphis 50 years ago will forever remain a huge part of civil rights and labor rights history. That labor struggle began with a very difficult and hard-fought strike by sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1733.

The great civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came here to Memphis in support of those workers because labor rights and human rights are one and the same.

That’s why that strike was about much more than economics, it was about human rights, equal rights, and simply being treated with respect and dignity.

When two union members, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death because of malfunctioning equipment that the city refused to repair, workers soon after called for a strike and took to the streets.

Dr. King knew from the minute he became the face of the civil rights movement that his life would be in jeopardy. Tragically, 50 years ago today, while standing up for workers’ rights and human rights, his life was snuffed out in an attempt to stop the movement he led.

But all those who shared his beliefs didn’t stop. Actually, those striking workers went on to win their strike, becoming the first union to sign a Collective Bargaining Agreement with the city of Memphis, ending years of racial discrimination and improvements in pay and benefits.

And now, 50 years later, we stand here looking back at what has happened since then. In recent years, the common understanding was that while there has been much progress made, we have a long way to go. But that was said with the understanding that we were continuing to move in the right direction.

With the current all-out war on labor, the need for movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and March for Our Lives, there is no doubt that our country is no longer moving forward on these issues, but in fact, moving backward.

There is no greater example of this moving backward than the current President of the United States drawing a moral equivalence between those who march with torches in support of hatred and bigotry and those who protest against it.

Throughout the history of the United States, justice has never been won without taking to the streets. So today we march, and we must keep on marching until we take racism and economic oppression and drive it into the ground!

God bless Echol Cole, Robert Walker, Dr. King, and all those who suffered and died to make this world a better place.

Now let’s march!