Looking Back on Labor History: Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike & the Battle of the Bulk

January 8, 2024

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Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike

Feb. 12, 1968 – More than 1,300 Black workers from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike against a pattern of neglect and abuse of the city’s Black employees that had culminated in the deaths of two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker. The two were crushed by a malfunctioning truck on Feb. 1, 1968.

The workers demanded improved safety standards, wages, and the recognition of their union, Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Union organizer and former garbage-collector T.O. Jones helped lead the strike with fellow organizer William Lucy, who later became AFSCME’s national Secretary-Treasurer.

With support from the NAACP, the strike was a focus of both the labor and civil rights movements. On March 29, after months of daily protests fraught with police brutality, more than five-thousand people demonstrated in the famous “I Am a Man” march, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. However, the protest turned violent, leaving 60 injured and 16-year-old Larry Payne slain by Memphis police officers, who used mace, nightsticks, teargas, and gunfire against the crowd. The city imposed a curfew and mobilized 4,000 National Guards.

On April 3, King marched with the workers and later delivered what would be his last public speech. He was assassinated the following evening.

King’s assassination sparked national outrage, and the strike intensified. On April 8, King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, led a silent march in Memphis – originally planned by her late husband – with United Auto Workers president Walther Reuther and 42,000 participants.

Under mounting national pressure, the city’s white supremacist mayor was forced to recognize the workers’ union and increase wages on April 16. The moment was a turning point for civil rights and union activity in the South. ■

Battle of the Bulk

Jan. 21, 1974 – APWU-represented postal workers walked o their jobs at the New York Bulk and Foreign Mail Center, after management refused to honor working condition commitments at the first and largest bulk mail center in the U.S.

The action lasted four days and included postal workers at the nearby Kearny facility (formerly the “Meadows”) in North Jersey, NJ who stayed out of work in support of NY bulk mail workers. During the protests, the police used violence and midnight arrests against the workers. However, the workers were bailed-out at 2 a.m. by the New York Metro Area Local.

A Federal district court judge directed management to return the workers to their old, regular shifts, pending the outcome of arbitration. Moe Biller, who was local president of the New York Metro Area Local at the time, instructed nearly 2,000 workers to report to their old, regularly scheduled shifts.

The Postal Service asked the court to impose fines of $100,000 per day, temporary restraining orders, and contempt citations against the NY Metro Area Local, and an additional $100,000 each day against Biller.

However, the Battle of the Bulk ended with a pre-arbitration settlement that kept most tours intact, and an agreement that management would not make any changes to tours or rest days without providing advance notice to the union. The action cost the local a total of $80,000, which included paying for the release and fines of jailed workers. Despite the risks taken by workers for participating in the action, no one was penalized, suspended, or fired. ■

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