Labor Secretary Hilda Solis on Friday honored the 1,300 black workers who took part in the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968, taking a swipe at governors who are trying to curtail public union employees' benefits.
The strike, where Martin Luther King Jr. made his final campaign before an assassin's bullet took his life, played a major role in the civil rights movement and the fight for social and economic justice for black workers. It is also considered a watershed moment in the history of collective bargaining rights for public employees, a point Solis raised as she criticized the move in some states to curb bargaining rights for public workers.
"Today, some governors are using the financial crisis as an excuse to take this country backward, instead of forward," Solis said in a ceremony at the agency's headquarters. "But we know American workers still want and need a voice at the table. We know collective bargaining gives them that seat."
Solis formally inducted all 1,300 of the striking workers into the agency's Labor Hall of Fame, founded in 1988 to honor the memory of people who have enhanced the quality of life for American workers. The hall of fame typically includes famous union heroes like Cesar Chavez and Mother Jones, but Solis said it was time to recognize a group of rank-and-file workers who helped shape history.
The public sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike after two of their coworkers' were accidentally crushed to death on the job. They were seeking higher wages, better working conditions and the right to form a union. After 63 days of striking and peaceful demonstrations, they won many of their demands, including overtime pay, sick leave and improved safety conditions.
Eight of the men who took part in the strike, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, attended the Labor Department ceremony. The men also met earlier with President Barack Obama at the White House.
The White House says Obama is committed to the cause for which the workers marched "as workers across the country continue to face challenges to their rights."
Both Solis and Obama have made a number of public statements to support union members protesting GOP efforts to curtail union rights in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states. Some union leaders have complained that the Obama administration could do more by sending prominent officials to rally with demonstrators in the states.