It’s common to hear the words of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in times of political unrest—particularly when this country’s destructive legacy of racism and white supremacy once again come to the fore. Echoes of King’s sonorous voice find their way into the demands of today’s Black activists, who understand the full radical power of his ideas. King’s less confrontational counsel also crops up in the Facebook posts of white moderates who eagerly embrace his message of peace but would recoil in horror if they read any of his thoughts on capitalism (or dug into his complicated relationship with Black militant leader Malcolm X). The enduring popularity of his theory of nonviolence contrasts with the brutal reality he confronted as the face of a Black liberation movement. For example, we don’t often hear about his commitment to direct action and self-defense (or the personal arsenal he once maintained), to say nothing of the FBI’s vicious efforts to blackmail him into suicide.
We also don’t hear all that much about King’s close ties to the labor movement, despite the racist history dogging the country’s largest unions and the pivotal role that Black union activists have played in the struggle for workers’ rights. Lest we forget, King’s own efforts to uplift the Black working class and to forge alliances with organized labor are what brought him back to Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968. Five years earlier, he had spoken alongside United Autoworkers president Walter Reuther at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which was co-organized by A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the nation’s first predominantly Black labor union. In 1968, he had landed in Memphis in the midst of a knockdown, drag-out fight between the city and its striking sanitation workers. He’d previously addressed crowds of Memphis strikers and their supporters and marched alongside them earlier that year, but his April speech was a real showstopper. In that famed “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon, he challenged the crowd to answer the question, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?”
The next day, he was dead, slain at his hotel by a coward’s bullet. And on April 16, after weeks of mourning and meetings, the strike was finished, too. The dignity that the workers had demanded and that King had called out to the heavens for was won, for a time. The images of the striking Black men with placards around their necks proclaiming boldly “I Am a Man”—at a time when the Jim Crow South still sneeringly referred to Black men as “boys”—became powerful symbols of that struggle for dignity, for a fair wage, for bread and roses, too. It’s no surprise that those words and those photos have resurfaced again and again, as Black people have been continually forced to reassert their humanity in the face of a system that devalues their very existence. “I Am a Man” predates “Black Lives Matter,” but the sentiment remains the same: We are here. We matter. We are bloodied, but unbowed.
King’s “mountaintop” orations come to mind once again as a new crop of overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated sanitation workers have hit the bricks in the name of justice in the “right to work” Deep South. The highly skilled “hoppers” who collect 250,000 pounds of New Orleans’s garbage every day have been out on strike since May 5. Their demands are simple: a $15 per hour wage, proper personal protective equipment, weekly hazard pay of $150, and the chance to represent themselves in collective bargaining negotiations in order to strike a fair deal with management. Alongside protest signs and Black Lives Matter banners, the strikers have also drawn an explicit line between their current action and past struggles by holding up “I Am a Man” signs and challenging their employers to properly value their labor and their lives.
Their employer, PeopleReady, is a staffing company contracted by Metro Service Group. This arrangement handily circumvents the city’s minimum wage ordinance. The workers—all of whom are Black—say they are making $10.25 an hour, with no benefits or sick days, to haul away a major city’s stinking trash amid a heatwave, a global pandemic that has disproportionately affected Black communities, and a nationwide uprising against police violence and racism. They allege they’re paid $1 for every 500 pounds of garbage they lift into their trucks, which they say are also poorly maintained and leak toxic hydraulic fluid. Last year, the city paid Metro, which is Black-owned, more than $10 million for its services.
“To connect our struggle to the struggle for Black lives, we look back to 1968 when our brothers from that time were crushed in that garbage truck,” striker Janard Taylor told me by email. “We have been in those positions when it’s raining outside, and you hop in the back of a truck to try not to be soaking wet your whole route. We never knew that we could, too, be crushed—although we feel crushed by Metro. Crushed by unfair labor practices, by an African American, locally owned company.”
Hoppers do a difficult, dirty, dangerous job—one that’s absolutely essential to the health and well-being of our cities but is also the fifth-deadliest profession in the United States. Many of the hoppers sport scars from workplace injuries. The 1968 Memphis strike came about after two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death in a garbage compactor. Hoppers’ work conditions have only marginally improved half a century later. In 2019, 37 sanitation workers were killed on the job, and nearly 1,500 were injured. The rate of fatal work injuries in the U.S. hovers at 3.5 per 100,000 workers; for sanitation workers, the number soars to 44.3. (Police, on the other hand, don’t even crack the top 10.)
“If you know New Orleans garbage, it’s real, nasty, and heavy,” says Kendrick Anderson, another one of the striking hoppers. “We work from sunup to sundown … I got hurt several times on the truck where I would end up in the hospital. It’s not right, it’s not right. It’s time for everyone to realize and know what’s going on.”
The hoppers take great pride in their work and provide a vital service to their community. They are fathers, husbands, brothers, and grandfathers. When Metro brought in incarcerated people on work release from the nearby Livingston Detention Facility to fill in, the hoppers didn’t call them out or label them scabs. Instead, they empathized with them and decried the slave wages that the fill-ins were being paid. (That wage is just 13 percent of a hopper’s rate, or $1.33 per hour—while 64 percent of the contract fee goes to the private company that brokers their employment.) The city ceased using prison labor on May 11 but has continued to hire fill-ins as the strike continues.
“[Metro] just sees the money that’s coming in,” says Justin Edward, who has worked as a hopper for Metro on and off since 2007 alongside his twin brother, Jonathan (who’s worked for Metro since 2006 and was also interviewed for this piece). He smiles as he describes the camaraderie between the hoppers as they go about their long days, the time they spend checking on elderly neighbors, and how his heart swells when neighborhood kids run out to greet them. “It’s not the job, it’s the love you have for the job. And that’s what they don’t see.”
Greg Beuerman of Beuerman Miller Fitzgerald, a public relations firm representing Metro, said in a statement that “the city’s Living Wage ordinance mandates $11.19 per hour. Metro pays PeopleReady employees the city’s Living Wage as determined by the City Council.” He added, “Jimmie and Glenn Woods, owners of Metro, one of the largest African-American owned prime contractors in the state, fully understand what it is like to be a hopper, and appreciate fully the difficult and dirty work hoppers do under very challenging conditions. Both Glenn and Jimmie started their careers as hoppers, working on the back of their own truck when they started their business. Jimmie’s son works as a hopper even today.”
Edward’s niece, Daytrian Wilken, emphasizes that despite Metro’s status as a Black-owned business, the exploitation of its Black workers cuts just as deep as if the racial dynamics were different. “We’re not knocking this Black business,” she said. “We want this brother to have what he needs and make money, but we would also like to be treated like human beings—so that’s what we’re asking for.”
Due to financial constraints, the original cohort of 26 strikers dwindled to 14 by June 26—but those 14 men are still out on the picket line every day. A GoFundMe set up by Wilken has been the strikers’ sole source of income as the days and weeks have dragged on: Their initial goal was $5,000, but they have raised more than $175,000. After Edward asked her to help set up the GoFundMe, 25-year-old Wilken (who is based in Texas) “fell headfirst” into being the group’s de facto spokesperson and played a pivotal role in coordinating press coverage of the strike.
Beuerman noted that Metro has met several of the strikers’ demands, such as an additional portable toilet in the company yard and another tent to help shield workers from the elements. He also said that “no sanitation company in the city or region is paying hazard pay,” and disputed the allegation of inadequate PPE: “Metro purchased 15,000 masks, 2,000 sets of heavy gloves, sanitizer and more BEFORE the strike was called and provides adequate PPE at the beginning of every week.”
Efforts by New Orleans City Councilmember Jason Williams to broker a meeting between the strikers and Metro have fallen flat, with the company refusing to sit down with the workers. Now the workers have christened themselves the City Waste Union, and Wilken says the new workers’ organization plans to affiliate with a bigger union once the strike ends. The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees is on its list—the same union that represented the Memphis sanitation workers who went out on strike back in 1968. But Wilken says that the City Waste Union is in conversation with “many unions,” pending a final decision on affiliation.
The City Waste Union isn’t the only group of sanitation workers fighting for recognition on the job and drawing parallels between their struggle as workers and as targets of state violence. In Tuskegee, Alabama, which holds its own important place in Black history, sanitation workers struck in May and have been protesting in front of City Hall for weeks. In Philadelphia, where dozens of sanitation workers have contracted the coronavirus, hundreds rallied to demand PPE, hazard pay, and cuts to the Philadelphia Police Department’s bloated budget, holding signs that read, “PPE Not PPD!” On June 20, the New Orleans hoppers joined the local chapter of the Movement 4 Black Lives at a rally calling to defund the city’s police department and to “invest in Black Lives in the ways represented with these demands to Metro, to the city of New Orleans, and in every way possible.”
Almost two months into their strike, the hoppers are standing firm. As King told the workers in Memphis, as their strike was beset by bloodthirsty police and politicians, “Nothing worthwhile is gained without sacrifice. The thing for you to do is stay together, and say to everybody in this community that you are going to stick it out to the end until every demand is met, and that you are gonna say, ‘We ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.’”
That’s very much the message that sanitation workers are now bringing to the picket line and to protests over racist policing. “We know that with the continued community support, we are going to win,” Taylor says. “There’s no doubt that we will win. It will take time, but a win is inevitable.”
The necessary conversation over whose labor is truly essential under the Covid-19 pandemic has fizzled as more states have begun reopening, but the hoppers of New Orleans have again shown how people who do the hardest, most indispensable work are often treated as the most disposable members of our political economy. King warned against this very effort to downplay the contributions of essential workers of all kinds on the front lines of the 1968 labor action in Memphis.
“Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth,” he told a crowd of Memphis sanitation workers on March 18. “One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the ﬁnal analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.”
These powerful King-authored directives are now front and center in New Orleans’s ongoing sanitation struggle. “We, like many before us, feel downtrodden and left behind,” Jonathan Edward says. “The killing of George Floyd has propelled us further into action, because we want Metro’s knee off of our necks. We deserve better, and we won’t let up until we get what we need.”