Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Lessons from the Sanitation Strike - 42 Years Later

April 4th marks the 42nd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assasination in Memphis while supporting the Memphis sanitation workers' strike. The incredible sacrifice that Dr. King made with his life, that workers made with their livelihoods, and that community supporters made with their money, time, and reputations offer us many lessons today in the fight for social justice:

1) Workers who have been pushed to the limit will eventually push back. Some might have thought that the sanitation workers were so oppressed and had so few options for work that they wouldn't dare to form a union. In fact, strike leader T.O. Jones had tried unsuccessfully several times to organize his co-workers before the 1968 strike. But the deaths of workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker, crushed to death by compactors in their sanitation truck on February 1st, caused 1300 sanitation workers to walk off the job ten days later. Workers had had enough, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) were soon scrambling to follow the workers' lead, as were community supporters. The sanitation workers remind us that we should never write off a group of workers as too afraid, too poor, or too oppressed to stand up for their rights.

2) Workers must take the lead, but they can't do it alone. Without the thousands of Black clergy and laity, civil rights activists both local and national, and the small numbers of white people of faith who supported the strike, workers would have been hard pressed to win the strike. Faith and community leaders organized collections that kept sanitation workers from losing their homes while surviving on strike pay, and that filled pickets lines and mass marches that forced the City to eventually recognize the union. Listen to these individual stories from NPR's StoryCorps to get a picture of how the African-American community came together to support the sanitation workers. Workers today make often heroic struggles to win union representation, fair wages, and decent treatment. Having allies in the community who will stand with them often means the difference between a victory or a loss in these struggles.

3) In the words of Dr. King, "Nothing worthwhile is gained without sacrifice." Many of his close allies urged Dr. King not to get involved with the Memphis strike, considering it a distraction from more traditional civil rights work. Workers faced tremendous pressure to go back on the job as the strike dragged on for more than two months. Courageous civil rights leaders, clergy, and community leaders who spoke out were mocked and threatened by sources ranging from the media to the Mayor. Yet without the sacrifice of all these people, the sanitation strke wouldn't have been won. Today, all city and county workers who have union representation in Memphis can thank the sanitation workers and those who stood with them.

Watch the beginning of At the River I Stand, a documentary of the sanitation workers' strike.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Video of Memphis workers marching for immigration reform

I am so inspired by all the workers, students, and activitsts from Tennessee - 500 of them in all - who travelled to DC this past weekend to march for immigration reform. Parents travelled with their children to push for reform because they've worked hard, paid taxes, and built a life in the United States. They want and need a path to citizenship.

Our modest video from this weekend doesn't give you the true picture of just how many people marched for reform. There were between 150,000 - 200,000 people who stood up and made their voices heard.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Why WIN is Joining the March for America

Today, I'm holding down the fort here in Memphis while two of my co-workers and nine workers from WIN's Workers' Center travel to Washington, DC for the March for America. About 100,000 people are expected to take part in this march for comprehensive immigration reform. Why do we think that now is the time for immigration reform?

1) Our diverse faith traditions call on us to love the immigrant and seek justice for all people. The Hebrew scriptures caution us to "not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for  you were aliens in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 23:9) My own Christian tradition directs me to welcome the "stranger" (a term that specifically refers to immigrants) as if he or she is Jesus himself (Matthew 25:35). Islam also teaches that God desires justice, including for those who are refugees or strangers. The day after the march a high level delegation of religious leaders will be meeting with the White House to share these messages and press for immigration reform.

2) Families are being torn apart. I can't imagine what it would be like to live in fear that my child could be taken from me at any moment. Or what's it's like to have to work in another country without your family, just so they can survive. But thousands of immigrant families live with these fears and these realities every day.

Our broken immigration system makes it very difficult for many immigrant workers to reunite with their families. The agony of family separation discourages people from working within the current immigration system. (If you have questions about why people don't "wait in line" to get a visa under the current U.S. immigration system, check out this easy to understand chart by Reason magazine that shows how long it takes to become a citizen depending on your immigration situation.)

The number of deportations during President Obama's first year is higher than in previous years. As Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine points out, this means more broken lives. "That is not what we meant by change," Wallis writes, and I agree.

3) Workers' rights are being eroded. Every day at Workers Interfaith Network, we see the ways that employers take advantage of undocumented workers by paying them below minimum wage and intimidating immigrants who try to form unions. Many immigrant workers want to organize for better working conditions and pay, but they have to balance that desire with the fear of deportation. When employers can hire immigrant workers for low wages and bad working conditions, it hurts all workers. Immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for immigrant workers already working and paying taxes in the U.S. would level the playing field for all workers.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Help WIN deliver hundreds of wage theft petitions to Luttrell and Gibbons

Mark your calendars for Thursday April 8th and plan to join Workers Interfaith Network at noon at the Shelby County Courthouse. We'll be rallying at the courthouse (140 Adams Ave). to tell Shelby County law enforcement that wage theft is a crime!

More than 1,000 of you have now signed printed and electronic petitions to Sheriff Mark Luttrell and District Attorney Bill Gibbons, calling on them to recognize wage theft as a crime. Now it's time to deliver those petitions and tell these elected officials that workers whose wages are being stolen cannot wait.

Some of you who signed the electronic petition may have gotten a response back from the Sheriff's office that implied a new law would need to be passed it order to treat wage theft as a criminal offense. This is incorrect. Like other communities across the country like Austin, Texas, Shelby County could use our state's Theft of Services law to charge employers who hire workers and then never pay them for their labor.

WIN has also posted answers to a few other frequently asked questions about the Wage Theft is a Crime campaign on our website.

Hope to see you on April 8th! And if you haven't signed the petition yet, there's still time left.