Becky Strzechowski, Teamsters Local 700 President and Director of the Teamsters Human Rights and Diversity Commission, called for a moment of silence at 12 p.m. today to honor the memory of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, two Memphis sanitation workers tragically killed while on the job in 1968. Representatives and members of Teamsters Local 700, along with representatives from Teamsters Local 727 and Teamsters Joint Council 25 and its affiliates, gathered outside to pay homage to these two men and all sanitation workers. Two Local 700 sanitation drivers, City of Chicago driver Yuma Hayes and Cook County Forest Preserve driver Nazario Ortiz, also participated in the event.
On Feb. 1, 1968, two Memphis garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker sought shelter from heavy rains in the back of their rear-loader. Tragically, their truck malfunctioned and crushed the two men to death. The families of the two men received no pension or financial support from the city.
Twelve days later, frustrated by the city’s response to the latest event in a long pattern of neglect and abuse of its black employees, 1,300 black men from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike. Conditions for black sanitation workers had steadily worsened under the administration of Mayor Henry Loeb, who refused to take dilapidated trucks out of service or pay overtime when men were forced to work late-night shifts. Sanitation workers earned wages so low that many full time workers were on welfare. Sanitation workers went on strike for recognition of their union, better safety standards, and a decent wage.
While the strikers belonged to a different union, the Teamsters provided critical financial support to the men. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously supported the strikers, traveling to Memphis to march alongside them. His tragic death at the hands of an assassin further galvanized the public in support of the Memphis strikers and led to a positive settlement for workers.
For many years, sanitation workers organizing with the Teamsters received support from Alvin Turner and Baxter Leach, two leaders of the 1968 strike. Turner and Leach traveled to speak with non-union workers during several campaigns, helping hundreds of men and women become Teamsters. Sadly, Alvin Turner passed away Sept. 18, 2017.