Washington News Service: OLYMPIA, Wash. - On February 2, union members across the country are honoring two sanitation workers killed in Memphis 50 years ago today with a moment of silence.
Leading up to the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, workers had complained about unsafe conditions, but were ignored. Their deaths led to the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968, sparking a movement that attracted national attention, and even the support of Martin Luther King, Jr.
In April 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis while supporting the strikers. After months of mobilizing, the city settled with strikers, recognized their union and increased wages.
Judy Kuschel is vice president of the Washington Federation of State Employees.
"You look at what fights they were undertaking 50 years ago and it's very similar fights that we have today," Kuschel said. "We still have people injured and killed on the job. We still have economic injustice. We still have housing that's not affordable for working people. We still have racial inequality."
The nationwide moment of silence will take place at 2:20 p.m. Pacific time. But Kuschel said she encourages people to take a moment of silence whenever they are able.
The Washington State Labor Council will hold a moment of silence at their Legislative Conference on Friday in Olympia.
Today, the nation's largest public employee union, AFSCME, is also launching the "I AM 2018" campaign to mobilize union members and educate voters. The campaign draws its name from signs held during the Memphis strike that read "I am a man."
Kuschel said unions are working people's vehicle for representation. She used a recent example in Washington state where public employees wanted their private information protected.
"I as one person trying to go to a state legislator and say, 'Hey, I want my birth date to be private,' is probably not a very successful fight," she said. "But if I, together with my coworkers, ask the union to represent us and help us in that fight, then I have a group that is going to be heard versus one person."
The I AM 2018 campaign will also be holding events nationwide leading up to the 50th anniversary of King's assassination on April 4, 2018.