50 years after the Memphis sanitation workers strike, the battle for a higher wage rages on

"I fight this fight for my kids, so that they can have a better future."

Fifty years ago, two Memphis sanitation workers were crushed by garbage compactors while on the job. Incensed by the deaths and years of low wages and poor working conditions, thousands of black sanitation workers took to the streets of Memphis in protest, demanding that their union be recognized and pay be raised.

Five decades later, thousands of fast food workers in two dozen cities across the country are striking for the same issues and carrying signs that read, “I AM a Man,” “I AM a Woman” and “I AM Worth More.” Monday’s demonstration will culminate in a major march through Memphis along the same route sanitation workers took.

“It’s moving, knowing I am walking the same steps they walked years and years ago,” Shavona Wilson, a 37-year old McDonalds employee from Memphis told ThinkProgress. “Martin Luther King Jr. died for this, it was the last cause he fought for before he was assassinated.”

This isn’t Wilson’s first strike; she’s part of the Fight for $15 movement leading the strikes across the country Monday. The Fight for $15 movement advocates for a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to form a union — issues that hit close to home for Wilson, a mother of five.


“A $15 dollar minimum wage would mean I wouldn’t have to decide which bill I need to pay first,” Wilson said. “It would mean I can give my kids the little things they want […] I fight this fight for my kids, so that they can have a better future.”

For the Fight for $15 workers in 2018, Monday’s anniversary is a sobering reminder of how little the country has done for black, low-wage service workers.

“We didn’t strike just so that the city would recognize our union, we did it to demand that we be treated with basic dignity and respect,” said Rev. Cleophus Smith, one of the Memphis sanitation workers who fought for higher pay and a strong union in 1968. “Sadly, the racism and greed that forced us to the strike lines in 1968 is still alive today. I’m proud to march alongside fast-food workers who are continuing our struggle.”

According to the National Employment Law Project, more than half of black workers and 60 percent of Latinx workers are paid less than $15 an hour and are over-represented in fields like the fast food service industry.


Five states, all heavily concentrated in the South, do not have minimum wage laws, meaning employers are only required to pay their workers the federal minimum wage floor of $7.25 an hour, which hasn’t been raised in almost ten years. In recent months, cities with sizable black populations have seen requests for minimum wage increases stymied by white state lawmakers. In St. Louis, Missouri, the wage floor in the city was reduced to $7.70 three months after a $10 per hour minimum wage was enacted. In Birmingham, Alabama, fast food workers and civil rights groups had successfully advocated for a minimum wage of $10.10, approved by the city council. Before it was implemented, however, the state legislature passed a law that required Alabama to have a uniform state law, effectively nullifying the city of Birmingham’s increase. At the time, the city was poised to become the first in the South to raise the minimum hourly wage.

The Trump administration hasn’t made life easier for fast food workers, either.

Earlier this year, the Trump-appointed General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board ordered a 60-day stay on a case filed against McDonalds. The case considered whether McDonalds, a franchise giant, should be classified as a “joint employer” and be held accountable for the actions of its franchise owners. The case was initially brought against McDonalds over reports that franchise owners had illegally harassed and even terminated employees that participated in Fight for $15 strikes.