February 12, 1968. Workers strike, city reacts.
Memphis sanitation workers meeting the night before at the Memphis Labor Temple decided to strike for better wages, conditions, and justice. Charles Blackburn, the head of the Public Works department knew something unusual was happening when very few workers clocked in for work at the Scott Street sanitation yard. He notified Mayor Henry Loeb, and they both rounded up enough workers to send a paltry thirty-eight trucks into the streets, leaving 150 garbage trucks behind. This number could not sustain the city’s needs and many workers returned to the yard soon after leaving after meeting resistance from striking workers.
The Memphis City Council, only 43 days old, did not expect the strike and took the news flat-footedly; Beifuss writes “[m]embers felt they had been unfairly hit on their unsuspecting heads by the walkout at a time when they were still trying to get themselves organized.”
Mayor Loeb expected the strike to last a few days at the most, allowing the workers time to “blow off steam”, and announced that he would remain in his office all day with his door open for anyone to talk. No one came. Later he told the evening news that he and the city government were not “going to be pushed around right off the bat in office.”
Loeb considered this strike a ploy by the AFSCME’s national organization to get Memphis to unionize, following the successful New York City strike. The mayor found his immediate comfort in an injunction from 1966 calling strikes municipal workers’ strikes illegal. He would return to this line of reasoning repeatedly throughout the entire strike.
The events of the following day, February 13, showed the union, the city, and the public that this strike was not a flash in the pan, short-term problem. By then, P.J. Ciampa, T.O. Jones and other union leaders created their demands, and Loeb, Blackburn, and the city government hardened their defenses against the striking workers. In a meeting at Ellis Auditorium, AFSCME official William Lucy and Mayor Loeb sparred in front of a large mass of striking sanitation workers and the press. After rounds of circular arguments and no resolution in sight, Loeb protested that he had taken enough abuse for the evening and announced, in a voice as Beifuss states “almost shouting [,]’ I promise you the garbage is going to be picked up. Bet on it!'” With that he staged his exit. Beifuss remarks that Ciampa could not tell if he had won the argument or not, but that there was one certainty: “[h]e knew now that only 12 garbage trucks had been manned that day, fewer than the day before.” For a city the size of Memphis, twelve trucks were only enough to sustain a few neighborhoods, and that before long, Loeb would find this wholly unsustainable.
Beifuss, Joan Turner. At The River I Stand: Memphis, the 1968 Strike, and Martin Luther King. Memphis: B & W Books, 1985.
Honey, Michael K. Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign. New York : W.W. Norton and Company, 2007.