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Fight for $15 recalls historic event

1968 Memphis strike inspires activists

Karen Morales
Fight for $15 recalls historic event
Fight for $15 protesters march to McDonald’s in Downtown Crossing on 50th anniversary of Memphis sanitation strike.

Fast food workers in Boston on Monday looked back at the historic accomplishments of sanitation workers who protested in Memphis 50 years ago, while fighting for a future that includes a minimum $15 wage and union representation.

Rep. Byron Rushing talks to reporters on Feb. 12 at the Fight for $15 demonstration.

Gathered outside the McDonald’s restaurant on 146 Tremont St. downtown, dozens of protesters and their allies, including Rep. Byron Rushing, Rep. Daniel Donahue and members of Raise Up Massachusetts and the Poor People’s Campaign, spoke to reporters about their social movement.

“This is so important, what you’re doing,” Rushing told the demonstrators. “The struggle you are engaged in is an important struggle that has to happen all over this country. Every worker deserves at least $15 an hour.”

Barbara Fisher, an organizer for the Fight for $15 campaign, said that she works at a D’Angelo’s in Hyde Park, but her employer doesn’t give her enough hours to earn a living.

“They said they don’t want to fire me and currently I’m sitting at home, taking care of my kids, but I have no way to pay rent,” she told media reporters.

Reverend Vernon Walker, outreach pastor at Berachah Church in Dorchester, also offered words of solidarity. “The Fight for $15 has made considerable gains over the last five years due to brothers and sisters getting together and speaking out against corporate greed that exists today,” he said. “We still got a ways to go, because 42 percent of Americans make less than $15 an hour.”

Rep. Donahue said, “For decades, unions have been agents of change … they brought safe working conditions, fair wages, they brought you the weekend and eight-hour workdays.”

He added, “We can’t stop organizing. We always have to be on the offense of making sure we’re organizing for change.”

A former line cook for Earl’s Kitchen and Bar restaurant, Paris Wilson said he joined the cause for his two kids.

“I don’t want them to struggle, I’ve struggled enough for them,” he said. Despite his seven-year experience working in the food industry as a cook, Wilson said his last position only paid him $11 an hour.

Sanitation workers in 1968 in Memphis were all black workers and faced little pay and dangerous working conditions daily. On Feb. 12 of that year, more than 700 workers went on strike for union recognition and a $2 an hour raise — the equivalent of $15.73 today after inflation. They marched from Clayborn Temple to Memphis City Hall holding signs declaring, “I AM A MAN” and received active support from Martin Luther King Jr., two months before he was assassinated.

Organizers at the protest event on Monday announced that the Fight for $15 campaign will be joining the Poor People’s Campaign for a season of civil disobedience coming up in the spring that will last up to six weeks.

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