April 4 is a nationwide Day of Solidarity to mark the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who died defending the rights of striking Memphis Sanitation Workers to form a Union and to collectively bargain for decent wages and safe working conditions. In San Diego, unions, people of faith, students, civil and human-rights activists will hold a Candlelight Vigil as part of America's "We Are One": Day of Action and Solidarity at 6:30-8 p.m. at the downtown Civic Center Plaza, 1200 Third Avenue. City of San Diego Sanitation Drivers are joining the Vigil to stand as one with workers in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and dozens of other states where corporations and their political puppets are waging a well-funded campaign to mislead taxpayers and scapegoat public employees for the WallStreet meltdown and to blame workers for the catastrophic losses of jobs and homes. San Diego city Sanitation Drivers have a strong tie to the tragic day 43 years ago when Dr. King was murdered on the Lorraine Motel balcony in Memphis, where he had gone to lead downtrodden, mistreated African-American sanitation workers in their struggle to gain bargaining rights for their Union local chapter. Their Union is the same as the Union representing City of San Diego Sanitation Drivers: American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Yet the struggle still continues as Big Business and right-wing ideologues campaign and strategize to unwind hard-fought labor victories and silence the voice of workers. Sanitation Drivers and worker advocates have been disappointed this week because City Council President Tony Young -- the only African-American member of the City Council -- has not put forward a resolution supporting Collective Bargaining Rights to honor the anniversary of Dr. King's death. Council President Young, however, did pass a resolution commending Edco Disposal, the private garbage company that hires non-union sanitation workers.
Dr. King's legacy is demonstrated in the positive changes that have taken place to lift San Diego garbage workers into the middle-class. Their union jobs have allowed them to pursue the middle-class dream of sending their children to college and of providing health care for their families. However, recent large cuts to pay and benefits -- and propagandizing campaigns to blame city workers for budget problems they did not create -- are combining to threaten the progress made possible by the work of human-rights activists like Dr. King. Sanitation and other hazardous blue-collar jobs are safer today thanks to years of hard-fought battles for regulation over jobsite conditions.
The Memphis strike was fueled by outrage when two garbage workers were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage compressor. The workers, Robert Walker and Echol Cole, had climbed into the back of the truck to seek shelter from the rain. Before collective-bargaining was won in Memphis, city rules there forbade African-American employees from seeking shelter from the rain anywhere but in their trucks -- with the garbage! But garbage collectors today still face daily hazardous conditions and rank seventh in the top ten most dangerous jobs, ahead of firefighters and police, according to the most recent Department of Labor statistics. And proponents of big business interests and of the US Chamber of Commerce, like conservative California Republican Congressman and former CEO Darrell Issa, are seeking to dismantle budgets for OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) at a time when the Obama administration pushes for new rules over unsafe workplaces. San Diego garbage collection is still the Number One-rated city service in Customer Satisfaction, above firefighters, police and libraries, in the most recent citizens' survey of 2010. Sanitation Drivers agreed last year to a major change in work schedules from 8-hour to 10-hour days in order to save millions in taxpayer dollars even though these changes can wreak havoc on family life and sleep patterns. But Council President Young has withdrawn support for city Sanitation Drivers, many of whom live in his District (District 4). In passing a list of possible solutions to closing the budget defiicit, Young voted on March 29 with the council majority -- all except Councilwoman Marti Emerald -- to consider outsourcing this Number One customer service by putting it on a fast track in the Managed Competition program. A final decision will be made in coming weeks after Mayor Jerry Sanders reviews the Council's list.
The Mayor has said he is opposed to sending garbage-truck drivers through Managed Compeition over the next two years until the end of his term. If the garbage collectors do go through Managed Competition it will be disruptive to the city's Number One Rated Customer Service due to the nature of the Managed Competition process -- many extra meetings that get in the way of daily operations. Meetings of bureaucrats and politicians do not get the garbage collected. Some African-American garbage-truck drivers, whose roots run deep into District Four, feel betrayed by Council President Young's lack of support for their union jobs. If forced into non-union jobs with lesser pay and benefits, the garbage collectors will be working even longer hours and spending more time away from their families in order to make ends meet. Some already have had their homes foreclosed on. Like many workers, most of them find it increasingly difficult to pay skyrocketing medical bills when their health-care allotments have remained stagnant for many years. Some work another job after collecting garbage all day. Some have had to move as far away as Temecula, Murrieta, Hemet and San Jacinto in Riverside County because they can no longer afford to live in their hometown of San Diego. With the longer commute, they are getting up as early as 3:30 a.m. in order to make it to work on time at 6 a.m. and sometimes do not get home from work until 7 or 8 p.m. One veteran African-American garbage-truck driver has an even deeper connection to the day that Dr. King was murdered. Rodney Fowler Sr.'s birthday is April 4. Mr. Fowler turns 50 this year on April 4 -- 43 years after he learned of Dr. King's death at the age of seven while watching the evening news with his family at their home in District Four. He remembers it well. The tragic news turned what was supposed to be a celebration of his seventh birthday into a tragic event. As the Labor Movement across the country honors Dr. King and his pivotal role in winning collective bargaining rights for Memphis Sanitation Workers, Mr. Fowler will be marking his own birthday with bittersweet memories this year and every year on April 4.