This article is from Headway, an initiative from The New York Times exploring the world’s challenges through the lens of progress. Headway looks for promising solutions, notable experiments and lessons from what has been tried.
Jack Walker is a union man. He drives a garbage truck in Memphis, where his route can take him barreling past shotgun-style houses along the Mississippi River and down the narrow alleyways near the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He is aware, always, of how his union protections are tied to Dr. King’s death and that of another man: his father.
Robert Walker, Mr. Walker’s father, was also a sanitation worker. On Feb. 1, 1968, he was collecting garbage when sheets of rain started pouring down. He and his colleague Echol Cole took shelter in the compactor of their truck. When a compressing piston malfunctioned, the two men were crushed. The city had no intention to pay death benefits, offering Robert Walker’s widow only $500 for funeral expenses, “if you need it,” as the official letter put it. She had five children, including Jack, and was pregnant with a sixth.
The tragedy was a culmination of slow-burning indignities for Black sanitation workers in Memphis. They earned low wages to lug heavy, open tubs of refuse to their trucks. Rotting garbage seeped onto their skin and clothes. Their white colleagues, who were often drivers, showered at the depot at the end of their shifts. But the Black collectors were forced to ride the bus or walk home in their dank clothes covered in flecks of trash and maggots.
Fed up, they called a strike. Roughly 1,300 sanitation workers began marching through the streets of Memphis. They carried signs that read “I Am a Man,” with the “Am” underlined. The strike stretched on for weeks. Even as trash began to accumulate on city streets, Memphis’s mayor wouldn’t entertain the strikers’ demands, instead sending in police officers with clubs and mace to break up marches.
The strikers’ mission and bravery spoke to Dr. King, who had embarked on a new economic justice effort, the Poor People’s Campaign. He came to Memphis in March and again in April, when, at a local church, he gave an impassioned speech that would turn out to be his last.
Two weeks after Dr. King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, the Memphis City Council voted to recognize the sanitation workers’ union, promising higher wages to the largely Black work force.
“It was a first step in getting them on their feet financially,” said Lee Saunders, the current president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “It was a huge deal.”
The strike in Memphis more than five decades ago “inspired a surge of organizing and strikes, not unlike what we see today,” said William P. Jones, a history professor at the University of Minnesota who has written on race and class.
Today’s resurgence in labor activism cuts across a broad range of industries. There have been recent labor fights at, among other places, rail yards, schools, hospitals, hotels, Hollywood studios and Starbucks stores. And the issues on the bargaining table include traditional demands, like higher wages and better staffing levels, as well as protections against replacement by artificial intelligence. Unions have had remarkable success in recent months, including securing a big pay raise for Las Vegas hospitality workers who merely threatened a strike.
What the Black sanitation workers in Memphis demonstrated was that, by joining a union and withholding their labor, even people in the lowest-paying, hardest jobs could “transform those jobs into reliable vehicles for economic mobility,” Dr. Jones said. And that, he added, led “to a rapid expansion of public-sector unions in the 1970s and 1980s and the emergence of African Americans as the most heavily unionized sector of the American work force.”
‘Great Strides Have Been Made’
Today, Black workers have the highest union membership rate of any racial or ethnic group. Even so, Black union workers make less than their white counterparts — $1,022 a week on average compared with $1,246 for white workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Gary Hoover, a professor of economics at Tulane University, said that the gap probably stemmed from the fact that Black workers get fewer opportunities for promotions. Still, Dr. Hoover said, Black Americans have gravitated toward union jobs because they offer better protections than nonunion jobs. “You’re looking for job security,” he said, “and some form of protection from discrimination.”
Those protections are harder to come by now. The union membership rate of U.S. workers was 10.1 percent in 2022, a big drop from 20.1 percent in 1983, when the federal government first began compiling comparable data. That decrease was driven, in part, by the decline of manufacturing in this country and the spread of factories to states, largely in the South, that prohibited unions from forcing workers to pay dues. Voters in Tennessee passed an amendment last year to enshrine such a ban in the state’s Constitution.
Labor activists around the country are trying to stave off further decline and establish unions in new industries. Throughout the first 10 months of this year, 492,300 workers have gone on strike — more than three times as many workers as in the same period last year, according to a labor action tracker from Cornell University. Picket lines are on the nightly news, including one in September in the Detroit area where President Biden joined members of the United Automobile Workers union.
There have been significant victories in recent months. Nearly 75,000 Kaiser Permanente health care workers went on strike nationwide, securing large pay increases, including a $25-an-hour minimum wage in California. In September, after a monthslong strike, the Writers Guild of America agreed to a 12.5 percent pay increase over a three-year contract and, two months later, SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, got a 7 percent raise in the first year of its contract. Perhaps most notably, the U.A.W. held an innovative strike against the Big 3 automakers that led to a 25 percent wage increase over the next four and half years.
“Great strides have been made,” said Martin Luther King III, Dr. King’s elder son. Mr. King, 66, who often marches in solidarity with union members, said that the labor movement felt more energized over the past year than at any other moment in his lifetime.
Dr. Jones noted that “most of the big gains have come in sectors where unions are well established and have the legal protections to strike and win concessions,” like the automobile industry and Hollywood. Early successes unionizing Amazon workers have stalled. And workers in industries like ride-sharing or food service have had a harder time winning union recognition. “In that respect,” he said, “workers at Starbucks or Uber are fighting for the same rights to decent wages, working conditions and union representation that the Memphis sanitation workers demanded in 1968.”
‘Those Brothers Went Through a Lot’
On a recent morning, dozens of garbage trucks rumbled along a road past the iron gates of a sanitation building on the southern end of Memphis. The air was thick and rancid. Most trucks were operated by a driver and a collector, who hops out of the truck at each stop and hoists the debris from the cans into the compactor. Their shifts start at 7 a.m., sometimes stretching for 12 hours.
Memphis has embraced its place in civil rights and labor history. Images of Black sanitation workers holding the iconic “I Am a Man” sign are plastered on plaques and murals across the city. In 2017, city officials gave $70,000 grants to more than a dozen workers who were part of the union in 1968. The mayor praised their “courage and resolve.”
A lot has improved, Mr. Walker said, since his father’s time. Back then, most Black men in the department could work only as trash collectors, not drivers; today, Mr. Walker is a driver. But sanitation work in Memphis is still dangerous. In interviews, some city sanitation workers described persistent safety concerns, such as coming into contact with carcasses of rabid dogs and acid splatter from batteries. Patricia Moore, 52, who worked at a private sanitation company, Republic Services, was killed in March when she was crushed beneath a truck at a landfill in Memphis. She had worked for the company for 30 years.
After the accident, workers with Teamsters Local 667, which represents Republic employees, walked off the job and initiated a nine-day strike, eventually getting a new five-year contract with pay increases of up to 28 percent an hour over the span of the agreement. It also included additional funding for safety equipment and gear.
For city sanitation workers, pay remains an issue. Marquize Cast, 40, joined the sanitation department as a driver in 2009. He grew up hearing stories about the 1968 strike from his grandmother, and working as a sanitation worker gives him a sense of pride, he said.
“Those brothers went through a lot,” he remembered thinking.
But with two children and mounting bills, his pay — he began at around $14 an hour and now makes around $21 — wasn’t enough. A few years after he started at the sanitation department, he took a second job as a night janitor at an elementary school.
Mr. Cast spoke about the brotherhood he felt with fellow sanitation workers — sharing laughter and meals, swapping shifts to help one another out. But he has seen co-workers leave for nonunion jobs with better pay at FedEx, which has its headquarters in the city, and at large warehouses stocked with freight at the Memphis International Airport.
“Mentally and physically, the job can break you down,” he said about working in sanitation.
The same has been true for Mr. Walker. The repetitive motion of getting in and out of the truck for 40 years has worn on his joints. Sometimes he wonders if the city really appreciates the work of people like him.
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Walker sat outside Local 1733’s main offices. Nearby, a plaque attached to a lamppost read “1968 Strikers Lane” — a small reminder, like so many others in this city, of the father taken from him when he was a boy.
Mr. Walker looked in the direction of the plaque. He thought about his father, “a strong, healthy man,” he said, “who just wanted to provide for his family.”
The Headway initiative is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as a fiscal sponsor. The Woodcock Foundation is a funder of Headway’s public square. Funders have no control over the selection, focus of stories or the editing process and do not review stories before publication. The Times retains full editorial control of the Headway initiative.