Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis
Remarks by Hilda L. Solis, Secretary of Labor
Labor Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
Memphis Sanitation Workers
DOL Great Hall
Friday, April 29, 2011
Good afternoon, and welcome to the Great Hall here in the Department of Labor.
This is such a special day.
We are fortunate to have with us a very honored guest, Dr. King's son, Martin Luther King III. Welcome, Mr. King.
I also want to thank Jerry McEntee and Lee Saunders of AFSCME for their passionate leadership every day on behalf of public sector employees, and for bringing eight of the Memphis sanitation workers here today.
I want to thank my good friend Arlene Holt Baker of the AFL-CIO for coming.
And I want to recognize Ambassador Andrew Young, Jesse Epps and Bill Lucy for their historic role in the Memphis strike. These men were there in 1968, and we are fortunate they are here with us today.
Actually, as I look around this room, I realize that almost everyone here is a VIP.
We have union leaders. Civil rights leaders. Faith leaders. Student leaders. Civic leaders. And guests from the White House and our sister agencies.
In the labor movement, we draw strength from our diversity.
So let me thank all of you as we gather to remember the historic struggle of the Memphis sanitation workers.
We are honored today to have with us eight of the heroes of the Memphis strike.
This morning, I was proud to join them and President Obama in the White House. How incredible is it that we have a President who says to these sanitation workers: "Come to the White House, the People's House. Because I want to honor you for changing America?"
Thank you, Barack Obama, for being a President we can all be proud of!
Today, here in the Great Hall, we gather for the first of a two-part ceremony to honor the Memphis sanitation workers for inspiring the labor movement and the civil rights movement.
Part two will take place on June 4th in Memphis, where these men made history 43 years ago.
As Labor Secretary, I am proud to work in a building that houses the Labor Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame serves a reminder not just of our history... but also of our continuing responsibility to the American worker. It is a place where we can learn from our past and draw strength for a better future. Even in the hardest times.
Many Americans know Dr. King's famous speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop." They know we lost one of our nation's great leaders for justice in Memphis. But many do not know why he was there, or who he was marching with these sanitation workers who had said, "Enough is enough." So what was at stake in Memphis? Let me quote Dr. King himself:
"Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, it has dignity. And it has worth. It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages."
The story of the sanitation workers deserves to be retold. In February of 1968, this group of ordinary American workers took an extraordinary stand for workplace justice. It was a century after emancipation. But the shameful Jim Crow era was alive and well.
In Memphis, African-Americans were shut out of jobs that paid an honest wage. For many black men, sanitation work was the only job they could get. They did the work, and they did it proudly.
I understand we have some other sanitation workers here today. Please stand and be recognized. In Memphis, the city did not pay the sanitation workers a living wage.
The working conditions were hard. And they were unsafe. When the sanitation workers tried to organize to improve their working conditions, they were ignored. When they kept trying, they were attacked and brutalized.
So they went on strike.
They took a stand for human dignity with four simple words: "I AM A MAN."
The strike began after two of the sanitation workers were crushed to death in a garbage packer. These deaths were preventable. Sadly, it's still true today. Every day, workers die on the job in preventable incidents.
Yesterday, we marked Workers Memorial Day across the country. We also celebrated the 40-year anniversary of OSHA for its commitment to worker protection.
Many of you have heard me speak of my father. He, too, worked in a dangerous job…a gritty job, to say the least. He worked at a battery recycling plant. He was the union shop steward there. It was from him that I learned about the power of organizing.
It was from him that I learned nothing would change unless workers had a seat at the table.
Back in Memphis, the violent deaths of the two sanitation workers were little noticed by most of the city. So the sanitation workers went home to their kitchen tables. And they told their families why they must demand a seat at the bargaining table.
Today, we remember leaders like T.O. Jones and former AFSCME President Jerry Wurf for leading the fight, as well as the other union leaders who lent their support. We remember the ministers, the civil rights leaders, and the students who fought. We remember organizations like the NAACP for their role in the struggle. And we remember the families of the strikers, who supported them every step of the way.
But most of all, we remember the workers.
They fought a mayor who said, "I don't have to bargain with you. I don't have to give you a seat at the table. You are public sector workers and you don't have that right."
But the Memphis sanitation workers would not give up. They had to overcome death threats. They had to overcome police brutality and the National Guard. They had to overcome Dr. King's death. They had to overcome a lot. But they did overcome.
And after 63 days of protests, the Memphis workers finally won their union. They finally got their raise. We are so glad they did!
Through everything, they stayed true to their non-violent philosophy. In the days after Dr. King's death, the sanitation workers went forward with their march. And, yes, it was a peaceful march. Those workers set an example for all of us that day. That's why I'm so proud to induct them into the Labor Hall of Fame today.
Today, they join a group of trailblazers that include heroes like Cesar Chavez, Frances Perkins, Mother Jones, Samuel Gompers, and A. Philip Randolph. We have famous men and women in our Hall of Fame.
But by honoring this group of rank-and-file workers, we reaffirm that that it takes many kinds of leaders to shape history. We honor the Memphis sanitation workers for their bravery and sacrifice in a time of great difficulty.
It's an important time to do so, because today in our time the dignity of public workers is still under attack. There's no question: We've come a long way. But we still have a long way to go.
Too often today, when workers come together to form a union, they are intimidated, harassed, even fired.
Today, workers across America public and private sector workers are carrying on the struggle that began in Memphis. I want to commend all of our union brothers and sisters for carrying the torch today.
On April 4th, you came together for a Day of Action. Members of the labor movement, the civil rights community, Jobs with Justice. All of you came together.
President Obama understands that labor unions are part of the solution, not the problem. Our President understands his history.
We remember Memphis. We remember the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. We remember the Upper Big Branch tragedy.
Today, some governors are using the financial crisis as an excuse to take this country backward, instead of forward. But we know American workers still want and need a voice at the table. We know collective bargaining gives them that seat.
To demand safer working conditions.
To make a living wage to provide for their family.
To give them dignity and the chance to earn a better life.
Workers need collective bargaining, whether they work on a garbage truck, in a sewing factory or in a coal mine.
Today, we honor the heroes of Memphis .We honor our history and we recommit ourselves to stand with workers in our time.
Brothers and sisters, these are hard times for working people. We will not win this fight in a day or in a month this is the work of our lifetimes.
Today, we hear the echoes of Dr. King in Memphis. He said:
"We've got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point. We've got to see it through."
Well, we won't give up. We will keep fighting. And we will prevail. We will look to the heroes of Memphis, who showed us the way.
So thank you all for being here today. God bless you and God bless America.