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PEP April 2012
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Public Employee Press

Veteran activist recalls historic Memphis strike

Professor Martin Morand speaks about the historic AFSCME strike in 1968 in Instructor Gene Carroll's class on the history of public-sector unions.

In Memphis, Tenn., 44 years ago this spring, a group of racially and economically oppressed sanitation workers went on a historic strike that grew into the Black community's freedom struggle. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to lead marches in support of the workers of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, DC 37's national union, and the famed civil rights leader was assassinated there on April 4, 1968.

Instructor Gene Carroll brought a veteran trade unionist who had been involved with the strike, Professor Martin J. Morand, to teach the March 7 class of his DC 37 Ed Fund/CUNY/Cornell course on the history of U.S. public service workers' unions.

The class prepared for Morand's lecture by watching the documentary, "At the River I Stand," and reading an account of the strike by historian Michael Honey. In 1968, Morand was southern organizing director of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union, which helped with the strike, and his fi rst-person accounts added fl avor and depth to the dramatic developments.

Deep in the Jim Crow South, King, AFSCME President Jerry Wurf and the Memphis strike were pivotal in forging the continuing strong ties between AFSCME, the labor movement and the civil rights movement.

At a strike rally, Dr. King spoke out against the poverty wages of the sanitation workers: "It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages," he said, and Wurf planned to organize southern municipal workers, city by city.

According to Morand, the strikers saw the union as a vehicle to break through the double barriers of race and class. Support from the community and other southern trade unions and the readiness of southern workers to go to jail were crucial to the strike's success.

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