AFSCME, Students Honor MLK with Call to Vote, Activism

AFSCME field representative Nickson Nyankabaria (left) and U of M professor Keith Mayes
AFSCME field representative Nickson Nyankabaria (left) and U of M professor Keith Mayes

Students, labor activists and community members gathered Wednesday to solemnly mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

AFSCME Council 5 co-sponsored a screening of the documentary “At the River I Stand” with the College Democrats at the University of Minnesota and Congressman Keith Ellison. The documentary tells the story of the momentous two months between the start of the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike and King’s murder.

Sanitation workers walked off the job in 1968 after two of their fellow workers were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck. Along with terrible working conditions and pay, they had no sick time and no overtime. The 1,300 striking sanitation workers carried signs boldly proclaiming “I AM A MAN” as they fought for recognition of their AFSCME union.

King came to Memphis to lend support, famously giving his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech the night before his death. It was only after his murder that the strike ended - 63 days after it began - with the men finally earning recognition of their union and a contract.

The strike proved that civil rights and workers’ rights are the same thing.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison
IB Image

U.S. Rep. Ellison pointed out that back in 1968, the average CEO made 20 times the wages of an average worker; that ratio is now 300 to 1.

“You want to know why it is that your tuition is high, your debt is high? Because somebody is accumulating and hoarding wealth at the top of our society,” Ellison said. “It’s important to understand that as people are trying to argue there is some separation between the fight for labor rights and civil rights, they are absolutely wrong. We need both.”

Even though our nation lost perhaps our most dynamic civil rights leader, he said, the strikers didn’t stop. And a “rainbow coalition” of people came to back them up.

“Solidarity is resistance,” Ellison said. “In this moment in time when the President is trying to divide you, the most radical thing you can do is come together.”

“We still need organized labor and civil rights to come together just to get a small piece of the pie,” agreed professor Keith Mayes, with the U’s African American and African Studies Department.

“People believe the civil rights struggle is somehow over,” he said. “You saw what happened in 2016 when we take our foot off the gas.”

Mayes said we need to recognize that our nation is polarized by both race and socioeconomic status. And he’s concerned that it took the election of someone like Donald Trump, who wants to roll back all the gains we’ve made, to wake people up.

AFSCME Council 5 field representative Nickson Nyankabaria said after labor organized the nation, “We didn’t keep moving. If you look at the Republicans, they realized this was a movement, and they started organizing, too. They out-organized us.”

“We need to organize!” he said. 

Panelists urged everyone, especially young people, to vote and to become active.

“As college students, we forget about the labor rights movement,” said student Claire Anderson, adding many students aren’t working fulltime jobs yet, and don’t see unions covered by the media. “It confuses me why we aren’t focusing on the struggle. It is still happening today.”

She quoted Paul Wellstone’s famous phrase, “We all do better when we all do better.” But she cautioned the audience, “We can’t be selective about what we mean when we say ‘all.’”

Earlier Wednesday, some Council 5 members joined thousands in Memphis to march from AFSCME Local 1733 – the sanitation workers’ local – to the Mason Temple where King made his last speech.

Members were in Memphis for AFSCME International’s “Mountaintop Conference” honoring the strikers and Dr. King. The conference is part of AFSCME’s “I AM 2018” campaign with the Church of God in Christ to advance labor, civil, economic and human rights.