“All labor has dignity,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told striking sanitation workers in Memphis more than 50 years ago.
“One day,” he said, “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.”
I never paid much attention to what sanitation workers did until a small group of them went on strike in early May in my hometown, New Orleans. They are called “hoppers,” because they spend all day hopping on and off the backs of trucks, rounding up garbage containers, and using their strength to dump them into the barrel that crushes the trash.
My Uncle Jonathan is one of them, and he asked me to help him and his fellow Black workers organize their City Waste Union in the first weeks of the strike. Their fight, which has now gone on for more than two months, has shown me more clearly than ever before that Black people are still shackled to a cycle of generational poverty and mistreatment.
They often carry signs that say, “I Am a Man,” as they protest. It’s the iconic sign Memphis sanitation workers first carried in 1968, in their bitter, 65-day strike, during which Dr. King was assassinated after coming to support them. I am only 25, but it’s obvious to me that my uncle and his co-workers are still waging the same civil rights battle 52 years later.
In 1968, a living wage and safer working conditions were among the Memphis strikers’ top demands — the same things New Orleans strikers are asking for in 2020. The men in Memphis worked full time, but their pay was so low that they still qualified for food stamps.
In New Orleans, before our strike, my uncle, for example, got paid $10.25 an hour, which isn’t a living wage.
“I get up every day and go to work,” said Darnell Harris, 34, another hopper. “But I can’t take care of my family off what they paid me. I am just tired of being stepped on. Me and all the guys, we’re tired of it.”
Our members are asking for $15 an hour. “In the 14 years I’ve been working as a hopper,” said Harold Peters, 43, “I’ve never made much more than $100 a day. To actually see a decent income, you have to be out there 60 or 70 hours a week.”
In 1968, work-safety fears set off the Memphis strike, after two workers were crushed to death in the barrel of their truck. Today in New Orleans, fears of Covid-19, which hit the city so early and so hard, prompted our strike. The men’s longtime concern that their health and safety on the job are not taken seriously turned urgent. That’s why the hoppers are asking for $150 a week in hazard pay, and assurances of a steadier supply of personal protective equipment.
One difference between the two strikes is that the New Orleans sanitation workers today actually have less bargaining power than the 1968 Memphis strikers had.
The 1,300 Black men who stood up against the mayor and the city of Memphis worked for the sanitation department and negotiated directly with city leaders. But in 2020, outsourcing of garbage pickup means a few private contracting companies manage many small groups of New Orleans sanitation workers.
Only 14 Black men are on strike in New Orleans, but their experience echoes those of many more hoppers in the city. And support from the larger community has kept us going. A strike fund we set up on GoFundMe has raised almost $200,000. In addition, the National Labor Relations Board is investigating some of our complaints.
But with the mix of private employers, one of which hired a public relations firm to help during the strike, it is nearly impossible for a large number of the workers doing the same jobs across the city to band together and negotiate their working conditions with any one company or with elected officials. That means Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the sanitation department are insulated, remaining one or two steps removed from dealing directly with the men on the front lines.
In my uncle’s case, the city contracts with Metro Service Group, a Black-owned, New Orleans-based company, for part of its residential sanitation pickup. Then, Metro subcontracts with an employment company called People Ready, a division of True Blue Inc., based in Washington State, that oversees and pays my uncle and his co-workers.
So when we spoke out about how the men’s pay was less than the $11.19 living wage that the city requires, the mayor pointed to Metro for answers. And Metro pointed to People Ready. After more than two months, no one from the mayor’s office has spoken directly with the men.
At one point, Metro subcontracted with another company to replace the strikers with prison inmates, who were paid even less than the men on strike got paid. But after that arrangement was made public, the subcontractor backed out.
As I understood it, one of the original goals of contracting out the work years ago was to give more opportunity and power to Black and brown private contractors in a majority-Black city. And a goal of the city’s living wage ordinance was to protect the people those companies hired. I don’t think anyone set out to take advantage of working-class Black men; I just think it has turned into that.
“Instead of actually helping everybody,” said Kendrick Anderson, 27, a hopper, “they just went along with that system they already have going.”
In a city that makes millions of dollars off Mardi Gras, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Essence Festival, when you see City Council members swinging beads and Mayor Cantrell second lining, our guys are riding behind them, cleaning it all up. But these men feel invisible and uncared for.
Don’t my uncle, the other hoppers and their families deserve the dignity that Dr. King spoke of a half-century ago? Isn’t it about time to do right by these Black men, and meet their simple demands to be treated as significant in their own city?
Daytrian Wilken is the spokesperson for the City Waste Union in New Orleans. This was written in collaboration with Emily Yellin, who produced the video series “1,300 Men: Memphis Strike ’68” on The Root.com.
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