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From 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike to Teachers’ Strikes in OK & KY Today, Workers Demand a Voice

Web ExclusiveApril 02, 2018
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Image Credit: Photo courtesy University of Memphis Libraries

This is Part 2 of our conversation about Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s role in the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike, 50 years after his assassination. We go to Memphis to speak with William “Bill” Lucy, former secretary-treasurer with AFSCME, and H.B. Crockett, one of the striking sanitation workers in 1968. Crockett worked for the Memphis Sanitation Department for 53 years before retiring. Bill Lucy played a key role in the 1968 Memphis strike and is president emeritus of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, with Part 2 of our discussion about the condition of labor in this country, 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King went to Memphis, Tennessee, to march with sanitation workers. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Bill Lucy, we were talking about the condition of workers not only back then in Memphis, but today, as you were remarking about the strikes that have spread across the country in recent weeks, especially of teachers in a variety of states. Your sense of the lessons from 1968 and the Memphis sanitation workers that the workers of today would benefit from?

WILLIAM LUCY: Well, I think what the sanitation workers of 1968 did was brought to the attention of America the need for workers to have a voice in the decisions that affect their work life, that dealt with their wages, their hours, their conditions of employment. Right now, you have, you know, low-wage workers, the Fight for 15, fast-food workers, poultry workers, food-processing workers—all of those who are at the low end of the economic scale having to struggle just to survive in this rapidly changing economy.

You now have middle-class workers. There was a point when school teachers considered themselves middle-income workers. They are now having to fight to demand justice in their wages and in their benefits. And this is a situation that’s going to grow across the country as the gap between the super-wealthy and those who need it is a continuous battle between the greedy and the needy. And people recognize, and they have to stand up and speak for themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back 50 years ago to that moment in the church where Dr. Martin Luther King spoke. Hundreds of people packed into this church. And, H.B. Crockett, after we play this, since you were there, we wanted to get your response.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: That’s the question before you tonight. Not “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?” Not “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about how you felt that night, H.B. Crockett. And then, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I may not get there with you”?

H.B. CROCKETT: Oh, that was the thing I couldn’t—I mean, I didn’t want to hear that part, because it’s like, you know, he saw his end coming, it looked like to me, when he spoke those words. But it was a packed house through that thing. It was a packed house. I mean packed. I mean, you couldn’t walk. There was a lot of folks there that night, a lot of them. And I was there. I was one of them. And I got home and heard the news, so I didn’t know—I didn’t know what to say. I know he did a good—he spoke good that night. I know that.

AMY GOODMAN: He was sick that night, right? He wasn’t feeling well. And Ralph Abernathy called him and said, “You’ve got to get here. You’ve got to say something.” He said, “Can’t you give the speech?” He said, “I’m not enough for them. You’ve got to come here.” Was that true, H.B. Crockett?

H.B. CROCKETT: Yeah. Yes, ma’am, it was true. We needed some help. We needed some help bad. Finally came, gave us some help.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you feel like establishing AFSCME, when you ultimately won, getting that local of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, made a difference for you as a sanitation worker?

H.B. CROCKETT: It made a whole lot of difference, to me. We got to settle the strike. That’s the main thing. We got a chance to settle the strike, so we could all go back to work.

WILLIAM LUCY: Amy, one of the key parts of that settlement was that the men achieved benefits that they never had before, aside from the recognition of the union and the union’s ability to finance its activity, but you got a grievance procedure, a clearly defined process for settling problems, promotional opportunities, training opportunities. You got nondiscrimination provisions, where discrimination was rampant across the workforce prior to this. And it was not a perfect situation, but it was substantially better than it had been in the past.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the situation in Memphis today for the African-American workers in the general African-American community?

WILLIAM LUCY: Well, Memphis needs a lot of help. We have digressed. It would be less than honest to say there has not been progress, but there is a lot more that’s necessary for the workforce that’s here, both in the public sector as well as the private sector. Workers are entitled to the right to organize and to bargain collectively around wages, hours and benefits of employment. You should not have the wide gaps between private-sector workers, who have the right to organize, and public-sector workers, who are denied that effective right.

AMY GOODMAN: Today there’s an ongoing fight for $15 an hour. Memphis is cited as one of the lowest in the nation when it comes to getting wages, particularly for African Americans. Bill Lucy, your thoughts on the kind of organizing and what this $15-an-hour campaign has meant around the country?

WILLIAM LUCY: Well, the struggle for 15 is clearly a struggle that has to be waged. But let’s not assume that $15 an hour, we have reached the millennium. You know, $15 an hour is $30,000 a year. Take taxes and other kinds of things off the top of that, and you’re really down to the $15,000 or $16,000 net spendable income that workers will take home. We’ve clearly got a nation that has the capacity to pay better wages, pay better benefits. And these workers on the low end of the economic scale are entitled to be a participant in that. Sanitation workers, who will tell you today, life is better than it was in 1968, but it is not the millennium. They need more. You cannot raise a family off of the wages that are earned now. Bargaining is the key to that. Nobody assumes they’re going to be given anything, but they are entitled to bargain over the value of the work that they do.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bill Lucy, I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the current situation of the Trump administration, especially in regard to labor. Obviously, we’re waiting for now the Supreme Court, with a conservative majority, to rule on a key case that’s very important to organized labor. But in general, how the Trump administration has dealt with its appointments to the National Labor Relations Board to its policies that directly affect organized labor?

WILLIAM LUCY: The Trump administration is an anti-labor, anti-union administration. Their basic policies have been to stymie the role of unions, to prevent unions from effectively representing workers as the National Labor Relations Act, you know, described for them to do, and particularly in the public sector. The Janus case is a clear effort to eliminate the role of unions in the public sector, to silence their voice, to make it more difficult for them to effectively represent their members. And the Trump administration gives you lots of bells and whistles, but at the end of the day they are not committed to having labor or labor unions play the effective role that they should be playing.

AMY GOODMAN: H.B. Crockett, what are your thoughts today on President Trump?

H.B. CROCKETT: Well, I think we need a good president. That’s what I think.

AMY GOODMAN: You like him.

H.B. CROCKETT: I don’t think he’s one of them.

AMY GOODMAN: Say that again?

H.B. CROCKETT: I said I don’t think he’s no good president. I can say that.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Bill Lucy, your—

H.B. CROCKETT: I think—

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, no, go ahead, H.B.

H.B. CROCKETT: I don’t think he’s no good president, but he’s in there now. We’ve got to deal with what we’ve got. But he ain’t no good president, I don’t think.

AMY GOODMAN: And Bill Lucy?

WILLIAM LUCY: Well, Amy, you know, over time, we have had, you know, bad presidents, but none who has approached the job as this one does, to use the divisive tactics to divide people up, to demonize various ethnic groups, to make it clear that the so-called Make America Great Again is the approach. I just totally disagree with that. He has got to be the worst president we have had in the history of this nation. And we’ve had some bad ones. But the argument that, “Well, everybody who voted for Trump is a racist,” I don’t buy that. I do buy, however, every racist who voted voted for Trump. Our review is that what we need is a government that brings people together, not divides them up and uses that division as a basis for making life worse for everyone.

AMY GOODMAN: And final thoughts on—well, you’re both there in Memphis. H.B. Crockett, you live there, retired from the Sanitation Department after well over half a century. And, Bill Lucy, you’re there for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King. Can you talk about what the climate is like right now? Like what are the events that are happening in these few days, where people gather from all over the country to remember Dr. King?

WILLIAM LUCY: Well, the principal program, Amy, has been sponsored by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, along with the Church of God in Christ. And it is to build a cadre of people who wants to build a better country. There will be training programs preparing people for issue organization and mobilization, really to talk to people about the important issues that face us as a society—you know, healthcare for all, a decent job for all, the ability to take a look at the problems affecting our communities. And Memphis has a set of problems, like many other cities across the country. And there will be real effort to try and mobilize people to go back to their cities and their counties and states, and carry on the same kind of work that will help build a better nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Any final words, H.B. Crockett, as you remember Dr. King 50 years ago? You, in his last 24 hours, were among, well, the few in this country who saw Dr. King.

H.B. CROCKETT: I wish all had retirement, but we don’t have it. I wish that, though. Nobody never gets their retirement. I wish we had got retirement. We got only Social Security now. We need the retirement thing. All us need that. But we ain’t got it. I don’t know why they don’t give us that. I worked all that many years, ain’t got no—sanitation ain’t got no retirement plan. We’ve got a Social Security plan.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will leave it there, and I thank you both for being with us. H.B. Crockett participated in the 1968 march in Memphis. He was a sanitation worker for over 50 years, carried those signs, “I Am a Man,” was there in the last speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, April 3rd, 1968. The next day, Dr. King would be gunned down. And, Bill Lucy, thanks so much for being with us, former secretary-treasurer of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Thank you for joining us from Memphis, Tennessee.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thank you.

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