Workplace Safety and the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

“It was horrible,” said the woman.

One minute she could see a sanitation worker struggling to climb out of the refuse barrel of a city garbage truck. The next minute mechanical forces pulled him back into the cavernous opening. It looked to her as though the man’s raincoat had snagged on the vehicle, foiling his escape attempt. “His body went in first and his legs were hanging out,” said the eyewitness, who had been sitting at her kitchen table in Memphis, Tennessee, when the truck paused in front of her home. Next, she watched the man’s legs vanish as the motion of the truck’s compacting unit swept the worker toward his death. “The big thing just swallowed him,” she reported.

Unbeknownst to Mrs. C. E. Hinson, another man was already trapped inside the vibrating truck body. Before vehicle driver Willie Crain could react, Echol Cole, age 36, and Robert Walker, age 30, would be crushed to death. Nobody ever identified which one came close to escaping. 

The horrific deaths of Cole and Walker on Feb. 1, 1968, set off the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, where 1,300 mostly African-American public employees struck to protest poor working conditions, including the defective garbage truck that crushed Cole and Walker. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in support of the striking sanitation workers in Memphis the night before he was assassinated.

On Monday, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is celebrated as a holiday. But the rightful veneration of Dr. King should not, for the lack of better terms, wrongfully sanitize or whitewash the fact that what he fought for would be opposed by many who invoke his legacy today. The Memphis sanitation strikers are asking for the same thing that striking fast food and service workers are asking for in the Fight for 15 campaign. Most establishment types and so-called moderates in Memphis refused to support the striking sanitation workers. Today’s so-called moderates argue that paying employees a living wage is too radical and counterproductive. History has a way of repeating itself.

Nearly 50 years later, I still represent sanitation workers who are injured from defective equipment. However, bloody crush injuries like the ones that killed Cole and Walker are much less common. Part of the reason for the increase in workplace safety over the last 50 years was the passing of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Dr. King was willing to risk bodily harm and ultimately ended up being killed supporting workers who were protesting unsafe work conditions. The passage of OSHA is a small but important and overlooked part of Dr. King’s legacy. History is repeating itself again as the business establishment applauds the expected rollback of OSHA enforcement under expected future Labor Secretary Andy Puzder.

Dr. King also deserves credit for his role in passing laws like Title VII that prohibited discrimination against African-Americans, which has allowed an increasing number of African-Americans to join the professional class and otherwise realize their potential as human beings. Dr. King’s legacy can also be seen in the expansion of rights for disabled Americans, and the fact that gays and lesbians are able to get married, and the real possibility that Title VII may end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

But by some economic measures, African-Americans are worse off now than they were 40 years ago. This fact can likely be attributed to overall increases in economic inequality over the last 40 years. The U.S. Department of Labor pointed out in a recent study that the gutting of state workers’ compensation laws has exacerbated inequality. Lawyers, legislators, academics and pundits have gradually forgotten about the risks faced by workers like Echol Cole and Robert Walker and how civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. saw the fight for workplace safety as a matter of basic human dignity and integral to the fight for civil rights.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett & Moore and Trucker Lawyers will be closed in observance of the holiday on Monday. We will re-open at 8:30 a.m. Central Time on Tuesday, Jan. 17. We encourage readers to think about Martin Luther King Jr. on the federal holiday and every day and continue to be both motivated and challenged by his words and works.