Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis
Remarks by Hilda L. Solis, Secretary of Labor
Labor Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
Memphis Sanitation Workers
University of Memphis
Saturday, June 4, 2011
Good afternoon, everyone.
This is such a special day.
I want to begin by thanking Shelley Seeberg and the hard-working men and women of AFSCME Local 1733 for being here today.
I also want to acknowledge our elected officials here today.
There are too many to name, but I have to thank Mayor Wharton, Council Chairman Lowery and representatives from Congressman Cohen's office for making time to join us.
I also want to thank President Raines and the wonderful students here at the University of Memphis for hosting us.
I want to acknowledge the many ministers and labor leaders and civil rights leaders here with us today.
And I want to recognize Bill Lucy, a longtime leader of AFSCME and CBTU, and Jesse Epps for their historic role in the Memphis strike.
They were there in 1968, and we are fortunate they are here with us today.
Finally, I want to welcome the men and women of the United Auto Workers who bussed all the way from Detroit to be here with us today. The UAW was here in 1968 as well.
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.
As Bill mentioned, this is a first for us at the Labor Department. We have never done a two-part induction into our Labor Hall of Fame.
Five weeks ago, I was proud to join eight representatives of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers at the White House for a meeting with President Obama.
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, we return to the city where these heroic men took their stand.
We felt strongly that we needed to come back to Memphis to complete the induction because you all deserve to share in this celebration.
We're here to honor the sanitation workers for inspiring the labor movement and the civil rights movement at a turning point in American history.
Will the surviving members of the 1968 sanitation strike please stand and be recognized?
Now, will all family members of the sanitation workers please rise and be recognized? It was your strength and support that gave them the courage to endure!
Will our ministers, members of the faith community, and community organizers please rise? They couldn't have done it without your leadership and your spiritual guidance.
Now, will every union member in the audience please rise? It was the solidarity of the American labor movement, the leadership of AFSCME, and the support of working people everywhere that made this day possible.
Now, will everyone who lives in Memphis today stand up and rise?
That's right, everyone on their feet now.
Look around you. It took an entire community standing together to make history here in Memphis 43 years ago.
Union members. Civil rights leaders. The faith community. Students. And ordinary citizens rising up for what was fair and right.
Give yourself a round of applause.
Please, have a seat.
As Labor Secretary, I am proud to work in a building that houses the Labor Hall of Fame.
The Hall serves as a reminder not just of our history, but also 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.
Brothers and sisters: 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 here in Memphis.
But many do not know why he was there, or who he was marching with these sanitation workers who finally said, "Enough is enough."
What was at stake here in Memphis? Let me quote Dr. King himself. He said:
"Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, it has dignity. And it has worth. It is a crime for people who live in this rich nation to receive starvation wages."
The story of the sanitation workers deserves to be retold again and again.
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.
Back in 1968, the city paid the sanitation workers so little, they still qualified for welfare.
The working conditions were hard. And they were unsafe. There was no workers' compensation.
If you were injured on the job and couldn't work, you were fired.
When the sanitation workers tried to organize to improve their working conditions, they were ignored.
When they kept trying, they were fired.
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.
Every day, 12 workers go to work in the morning and never come home.
Every year in America, 3.3 million people suffer a workplace injury from which they may never recover.
As your Labor Secretary, I want to make you a promise: I will not stop fighting in Washington until every work site, in every city in America, is safe and secure.
My father was from Mexico and worked as a farm worker, railroad worker and a Teamsters shop steward in a battery recycling plant.
He worked in dangerous job... in dirty jobs.
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 1968, the violent deaths of the two sanitation workers were little noticed by most of the city.
So members of the city Public Works Department went home to their kitchen tables. And they told their families why they needed a seat at the bargaining table.
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.
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.
It was a peaceful march. It was so quiet you could hear the sound of feet on pavement across the city of Memphis.
The sanitation 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.
History is being made in this city again today as you rebuild after the flood.
Once again, the Memphis sanitation workers have risen to the occasion.
They have been incredible heirs to the legacy of those who came before them
Not even a 100-year flood can dampen the determination of AFSCME Local 1733 to rebuild this city.
For weeks, these public employees have gone to work for 12 and 14 hour days in the 90-degree heat.
They have labored doing strenuous sandbag work.
They have removed downed trees and helped pick up mold and dangerous debris.
They have cleared neighborhoods zoned for demolition.
The sanitation workers of Memphis represent the best of public service. They care about their fellow citizens. They are motivated by what's best for the city.
These public employees demonstrate that Memphis is fortunate to have a government that is truly of the people, by the people and for the people.
As Labor Secretary, I am proud of these outstanding public workers and the union that supports them.
I'm also proud of the utility workers who have fixed downed electrical lines and restored heat and gas in homes across the city... .
The operating engineers who've erected dykes across downtown saving neighborhoods and businesses... .
The CWA disaster operators who've taken calls from distressed citizens and dispatched help where it is needed...
The police and sheriff personnel who have patrolled the dykes and kept residents out of harm's way...
And the firefighters who've responded bravely to so many emergencies like the runaway tank that would've dropped 1.5 million gallons of soybean oil into the Mississippi River without their bold action.
Thank you all for carrying the torch today.
President Obama understands that labor unions are part of the solution, not the problem. Our president understands this history.
We know that we have budget deficits in cities and states across the country including this one and our fiscal challenges are real.
Here in Memphis, you have a mayor who is willing to sit down with public employees and say, "Let's find away."
In some parts of the country, elected officials are using budget challenges as an excuse to take this country backward, instead of forward.
They want public workers to shoulder all of the burden for a crisis they had nothing to do with.
It's going to take shared sacrifice to get our fiscal house in order. Everyone will have to make tough concessions and be a part of honest, good-faith negotiations.
But there can only be honest negotiations if public employees have a seat at the table.
Today, some elected officials are using budget challenges 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 livable 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, a fire truck or in a classroom.
Today, we honor the heroes of Memphis...
We honor our history and we recommit ourselves to stand with workers in our time.
We will not win this fight in a day or in a month this is the work of our lifetimes.
Brothers and sisters of Memphis, we will stand together once again and help each another through these hard times.
We will rebuild this city.
We will rebuild our economy.
We will navigate these rough currents, with our values intact.
And when the going gets tough, we will look to the heroes of Memphis to show us the way.
God bless you, sanitation workers.
God bless you, Memphis.
And God bless the United States of America.