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Memphis Strikers Inspire NYC’s Fast Food Workers

April 3, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco

Memphis Strikers in NYC
Baxter Leach (l) and Alvin Turner (r).

New York, NY – Veterans of 1968’s historic Memphis Sanitation Strike recently delivered a stirring message to fast food workers fighting to carve out their own piece of history today – and it’s one that many say they will not soon forget. (Watch Video)

“In order for you all to win anything, you’re going to have to stand up and be counted,” former Memphis, Tennessee sanitation worker Alvin Turner told at an intimate gathering held at the Murphy Institute last week. “If you don’t stand up, you’re just going to continue to get what you got. But if you do stand up, what you’re doing is opening up the door for somebody else.”

In 1968, Turner, as well as co-speaker Baxter Leach, were part of the groundbreaking strike that in addition to ultimately winning better working conditions for Memphis’ sanitation workers, also helped further the American Civil Rights Movement. 

“The president of the United States invited me to the White House, and he said, ‘If it hadn’t been for the stand that you all took in 1968, I wouldn’t be president today,’” Turner said. 

New York City’s fast food workers held their own one-day strike back in November, seeking some of the very same things – dignity, respect and fair wages – that Turner, Leach and others fought so hard to attain 45 years ago in the segregated South.  

“I’m not going to lie, I was a little scared because I thought I was going to get fired,” said one fast food worker. “But I walked into the store with my face real high, and happy about what I did [the previous day]. “But it’s like [Mr. Turner] said, if you don’t stand up, no one is going to do it for you. And that’s what we need to do. Stand up and keep fighting for what we need. Not only for ourselves, but for our children.”

For months, grassroots community groups including United NY and New York Communities for Change [NYCC] have been partnering with organized labor in an all-out effort to raise New York State’s paltry minimum wage of $7.25-an-hour. 

However, despite some movement in Albany, advocates are not happy, and continue to fight for a minimum wage that actually sustains hardworking men and women and their families. 

“Workers from McDonalds, Burger King, Domino’s Pizza, Taco Bell, KFC, Wendy’s and a couple of other places went out on strike, and they went on strike with the demand that people should be making $15-an-hour and the right to organize,” said NYCC spokesperson Jonathan Westin. “Last week, when the New York State Assembly, Senate and governor were trying to negotiate a bill on how do we increase the minimum wage in New York to $8-an-hour, and than get it to $8.75, and then by 2016 get it to $9 an hour, the debate was how slow do we do it? How much do we give away to the industry? The point of the strikes in November was to change this conversation.”

Just a few days ago, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver called an agreement that would slowly raise the minimum wage in New York State to $9-an-hour in 2015 a “victory” for hardworking men and women whose salaries have not kept pace with the cost of living.  

“With this agreement, we are taking a significant step toward rewarding hard work with a wage that people can live on,” the speaker said.

Despite continuing to struggling for many of the same things the Memphis Strikers fought for in 1968, Turner advised fast food workers in NYC today to concentrate their efforts on identifying and backing candidates who genuinely represent their interests.

“We’re going to have to start getting the right people to represent us,” Turner said.




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