TIME FOR A GENERAL STRIKE! MLK and the 1968 fight for collective bargaining by Memphis sanitation workers

Written by Danny Weil Business Mar 10, 2011


Sanitation workers engaged in a general strike demanding the right to collectively bargain in Memphis, 1968.

At a solidarity rally for the rights of public workers in Wisconsin and working people throughout the United States one could see a green and white AFSCME sign which said, “It’s about Freedom” This can only be a reminder of the 1968 fight for collective bargaining by the sanitation workers in Memphis Tennessee.  

As one speaker outside the Capitol reminded the audience, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis at the side of striking sanitation workers who were standing up for racial equality, collective bargaining rights and economic justice in 1968.  In his appearance on March 17, 1968 before the workers, King spoke not exclusively of the need for higher wages for sanitation workers, which he did, but he also spoke directly to the striking sanitation worker’s demand for the right to collectively bargain.  “I am a man”, was the slogan of the day and the demand for human recognition by the workers in Memphis.  ”All labor is dignified”, were the words spoken by King.

Wisconsin is now part of a long legacy in the battle for collective bargaining that King fought for in 1968 for public sanitation workers.  It is also a turning point in the long march for racial freedom and solidarity.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C. He was assassinated as he prepared to merge the struggles waged by Blacks, workers, poor people, women and anti-war activists

The Poor People’s March that Martin Luther King was organizing with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the time he was killed represented a shift from having won the right to sit at the lunch counter, to being able to afford to buy that lunch.  That fight has never subsided and now, with the Wisconsin’s Governor’s recent, mendacious and illegal violation of open meeting acts, which demand notice for any political action by legislatures, the Governor has now carried the economic and political saga to new heights — illegally and in direct violation of the public open rules law he has created the material conditions for the destruction of collective bargaining for public workers.  

Unfortunately, as I write this, the illegal votes have now been cast in the legislature and public workers in Wisconsin have been stripped of their collective bargaining rights by dictatorial fiat.  The situation in Wisconsin has now dramatically worsened as the capitalist class has now forced workers’ hands.   Much more will be demanded to fight back right-wing capitalist attacks on workers and their families and the wholesale privatization efforts, planned and underway.

Sign at rally in Wisconsin

Walker and his political paymasters have now forced workers in Wisconsin and we can only hope workers elsewhere throughout the nation where the capitalist onslaught against workers is taking place in an orchestrated and brutal fashion, to begin to prepare for a large general strike.  It is time to show the capitalist class that workers not only refuse to pay for Wall Street theft through phony calls for  ‘austerity’ or ‘shared sacrifice’, but instead, will show the ruling elite who actually run America the power of workers by withdrawing their labor.   It is workers who create and created all the wealth in America, not capitalists who sit by the pool and receive their investment checks due to their expfloitation of working people.

The time now is for solidarity along all cultural, racial, sexual, gender differences and political lines.  As Ricardo Henriquez, an organizer with the Connecticut Center for a New Economy, who along with others will be knocking on doors for a giant worker solidarity rally on the New Haven Green on March 30th, succinctly pointed out:

Rise, ye mightly people!

“We have to put prejudices aside, not let us be pitted against each other, and start fighting the people on the top who are keeping all the wealth.”

He also went on to note that King envisioned:

“… the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity” (SCLC, March 15, 1968).

Today, unemployment is well over a pathological and sickening and deplorable 50 percent among African American and Latino youth.  This can only represent the impoverishment of a dying capitalist system that places profit over people.

It is important that we understand that the struggle to protect the jobs and union rights of public workers and the services they provide is a part of the bigger fight for the rights of all workers to organize and win decent wages, working conditions, benefits, an end to racism, the eradication of homophobia and sexism and the strengthening of communities.  It is the next logical  step forward on the road to freedom and if not taken, will dead end at the cul-de-sac of defeat at the end of the pitted and pot-holed road to serfdom and fascism.

Hattie Cantry and Members of the Hotel and Culinary Workers on strike in Las Vegas, 1987


what the ruling class fears most is worker solidarity across race, gender and gender preference  lines along with a solidified political and cultural movement aimed towards building twentieth century socialism.  It is now time to show the plutocrats who run this country, by knocking on doors, organizing public meetings, recalling politicians, building community organizations, fostering community debates and basically doing the hard work of political organizing, that not only are there more of us than there are of them —  but that when we fight and unify we win!

It is time now for a general strike—one that spreads throughout the United States where capitalist’s plans for been seeded and ready for harvest. This will require real shared sacrifice among working people as they unify and righteous moral outrage and indignation on the part of people; it always has and it always will. But if this does not happen and no movement coments out of Wisconsin that can challenge the capitalist class, then discouragement, indifference, apathy and their psychological and material consequences and counterparts will continue to deepen and work to shape our historical future in despicable ways. Moral outrage and social indignation must kindle a vibrant commitment to class struggle and the construction of a new movement towards social justice.

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