The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel
Martin Luther King (1929-1968), one of our country’s foremost leaders in race relations, is less remembered for his advocacy of the dignity of work.
The City of Memphis is sending a tax-free grant of $50,000 each to 13 retired sanitation workers, plus one more still on the job. This gesture, N.Y. Times (7/26/17) reports, is “an improvised fix to one of the most bitter legacies of Memphis’s labor history.”
In February 1968 two Memphis garbage workers died, crushed in a compactor. Their fellow workers caucused; lamented their low pay; detailed their unsafe work conditions; discussed joining AFSCME, a union; and called for a strike.
As the days passed, threats and confusion dominated the Memphis scene. King went there on March 18th to support the workers. He returned on March 28th for the same purpose. This time violent young adults roamed the streets. A curfew was imposed. King retreated to Atlanta and then to Washington.
King’s advisors discouraged further involvement in the Memphis situation, but he returned there. It is the lesson of the Good Samaritan parable, he said. “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers,” I am like those who passed by. Aware of threats against him, he preached: “But it doesn’t matter to me now… I may not get there with you… [But] we as a people will get to the promised land.” On April 4, 1968 King was murdered in Memphis.
The city reached a settlement with the workers on April 16th. Some details were hastily left incomplete, specifically about retirement. Thus all these years later, the 14 living workers who participated in the 1968 strike get $50,000 toward retirement.
Back during the 2001 New York City mayoral campaign, candidate Michael Bloomberg made what the press treated as a major gaffe: “Being a sanitation worker in this day and age is more dangerous than being a policeman or fireman.” His point could have been better made, but Bloomberg was correct—more injuries, more deaths. Garbage collectors fall from trucks, get hit by traffic, get cut by objects in bags, get injured or killed as they repair or clean equipment.
Robin Nagle was a driver for a 35-ton New York City garbage truck that she nicknamed Mona. Pedestrians obliviously walk in front of and behind Mona, she writes in Picking Up (Farrar, Straus, 2013). Residents think nothing of throwing out all manner of hazardous material. Plus the complaints.
In December 2010 New York City was paralyzed by snow. Sanitation workers were on the front line of storm clearance. Frustrated residents said that workers intentionally went slow during the recovery, as a passive-aggressive protest about work conditions. Nonsense, Nagle details. “Sanitation pride wraps around many things, but snow fighting is one of the biggest.” To punctuate her retort, Nagle tells about Mona in a five-truck caravan clearing an expressway. After an arduous push down a lane, the foreman led the trucks off a ramp. He gathered the drivers for a very profane pep talk—maybe unaware that one was a woman. The determined convoy quickly went up the opposite ramp and, says Nagle, “we did indeed bust the [vulgar noun that the foreman used for highway], just as we had on the northbound.”
These days health care delivery is a major topic. What two occupations most contribute to the delivery of our health? Plumber and garbage collector.
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.