January 15, 2017
by Ginger Otis
Civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. was killed while supporting a sanitation workers’ strike — and 48 years later, those same workers don’t get his holiday off.
Trash collectors from several private companies that serve the city told the Daily News they’re tired of having Martin Luther King’s holiday treated like any other day.
“I’ve never been given MLK day as a paid holiday, it’s just like a normal day here,” said Jordy Lopez, 22, of Brooklyn.
He works for Sims Municipal Recycling in Sunset Park, which has a contract with the city’s Department of Sanitation to process its recycling. Representatives from Sims did not return calls for comment.
King was 39 when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis while in town to support 1,300 black men from the Memphis Department of Public Works who were in the middle of a long and contentious strike.
Alvin Turner, 82, was among the sanitation workers who walked off the job in February 1968, a few days after garbage collectors Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck.
“When we went on strike, we didn’t know where our next meal was coming from,” Turner told the Daily News. “Some of us working for the city qualified for food stamps or welfare while doing eight hours a day. It was starvation wages.”
The workers marched with signs that read “I Am a Man” to make a point about their brutal conditions, Turner recalled.
“We was treated as less than men,” he said.
King arrived on March 18 — in the midst of the 65-day strike. He gave an electrifying speech and said he’d return March 22 to join workers in a march.
But a snowstorm and other factors delayed his return — while the protesting workers faced police brutality and other forms of retribution.
He returned March 28 to lead another march — but an outbreak of violence forced King and other leaders to cancel a planned demonstration afterward.
Some in King’s circle urged him to step back from the sanitation workers’ struggle — fearing it was a losing cause and getting too dangerous. But King refused.
“If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” King said at the time.
On April 3, a travel-weary King returned to Memphis and delivered his stirring “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.
He was assassinated less than 24 hours later, standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel at 6:01 p.m., felled by a bullet from lone gunman James Earl Ray.
“I’ve taken my son to the Lorraine Motel, we’ve talked about King and how he paid with his life to help sanitation workers,” said Sean Campbell, president of Teamsters Local 831, which represents many of New York’s private sanitation workers.
Martin Luther King Day falls on the slain leader’s birthday and was declared a federal holiday in 1983.
But while employers routinely recognize major holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving and federal celebrations like Memorial Day and Labor Day, they’re not as quick to honor MLK Day, Campbell said.
“As an African-American, which many of us are, it’s a really important day, and it’s one that in contract negotiations the employers always want us to give up,” Campbell said.
Public-sector sanitation workers are allowed to take the federal holiday, as are non-essential federal workers and postal employees.
Orrett Ewen, a private sanitation worker in the city, says in 10 years he’s never gotten MLK day as a paid holiday.
“It would be good for employers to respect that day, it would mean a lot to me personally. He died fighting for sanitation workers and it’s something we always want to remember,” he said.