DALLAS – Civil rights activists gathered in the historic Mt Olive Lutheran Church on the morning of July 17 to help the United Laborers Union Local 100 gain support for sanitation workers. The long history of American civil rights struggles laced the past and present together.
Reverend Peter Johnson presided. Rev. Johnson came to Dallas in the 1960s as a representative of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and talked about the last struggle that Dr. King personally led, for Memphis sanitation workers, and its similarity to the situation now. He talked about the fearsome days of bombings, when the only meeting place safe enough for civil rights meetings was the basement of that very church. He pointed out one of the members of the audience who had marched with him, and with Dr. King, in Selma, Alabama. He pointed out Ernest McMillan who, as a leader of the original Black Panthers, set the tone for militant struggle in the 1960s and 1970s. Another longtime veteran in attendance was Wade Rathke, founder of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) 40 years earlier in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Dallas, Wade Rathke said, is the only city in America paying its trash haulers minimum wage. The truck drivers make only $10 an hour, but the men lifting the trash bins try to survive on minimum wage. Part of the reason is that the city has privatized the work and subcontracted it to a number of small companies.
A number of the workers talked about their poor pay, lack of any benefits, and the dangers of trash hauling. Erick Jones said that the company does everything possible to divide the workers and circumvent all efforts to organize. “When they think we’re going to have a meeting, they schedule mandatory overtime,” he told the crowd. Another worker talked about a painful virus he had contracted. When he was diagnosed at the County Hospital, the doctors surmised immediately that he was a Dallas trash hauler, because they are the only ones at risk of contracting the virus.
The unionists did not reveal their tactics, except to say that they are gathering support and momentum to confront the power structure. Several of the activists suggested ways to bring attention to the movement. One of them suggested that they gather forces to attend the First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas, where they would pray for forgiveness for the sins of Mayor Leppert, who is on the church’s board of deacons. First Baptist is historically the very center of white people’s power in Dallas, and is known throughout the South for the worst in reactionary ideology.
Almost everybody spoke about the need for unity, both for the sanitation workers and for other causes. Several of the speakers pointed out that the Dallas sanitation workers’ struggle take place before a background of much larger and more general problems for American workers. The jobs crisis, it was said, is pressuring all wages and benefits downward. While workers have been victimized, the wealthiest Americans have enjoyed over 30 years of corporate welfare, handouts, and tax abatements.