Artificial Intelligence and Its Impact on Human Rights

Mathais Risse and Sushma Raman introducing themselves to the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

On October 25, 2019, the Institute for Human Rights hosted Mathias Risse, Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Administration and director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University, and Sushma Raman, the executive director of the Carr Center.  During the lecture and discussion, Risse asked the audience to consider the present and future moral and philosophical implications of ever-growing developments in artificial intelligence (AI) technology.   

One of the most well-known ethical dilemmas that Risse addressed is the Trolley Problem thought experiment which, seemed to be irrelevant in real life at the time of its conception, has massive implications in today’s world.  Imagine that you are standing by as a runaway trolley is headed toward five people who are tied to the tracks.  You can either refuse to intervene and allow those five people to die, or you can divert the trolley onto a sidetrack where a single person is tied. Which option is more ethical?  As AI technology is developed and products such as self-driving cars become more common, we cannot ignore the ethical concerns that will emerge and their attendant consequences. 

Risse also discussed rising concerns about the relationship between social inequalities and AI technology.  One concern is that, as technology develops, “unskilled” labor will be outsourced to AI, leaving low-income communities that typically work those jobs behind.  Not only does that leave people struggling to find work to support themselves and their families, but it also takes away their voice and political power because it pushes them out of the job market and economic system.  There is also a concern that technology will become less accessible to low-income communities as it develops, and that under-privileged groups will be left behind.  This has led many to worry that AI will “drive a widening technological wedge into society.” 

After the lecture, Risse and Raman answered some of the audience’s questions.  One person asked which of the problems regarding AI and human rights is the most concerning.  In response, Risse pointed out that it depends on who you ask.  From policymakers to tech developers to “unskilled” laborers, each group would have a different perspective on which part of the issue is the most urgent because each party has a unique relationship with technology.  

In closing his lecture, Risse noted that he wished he could end on a more cheerful note, but he found it to be nearly impossible due to the long list of concerns that the philosophical community has regarding the future of humanity and artificial intelligence.  Throughout his lecture and the Q & A session, Risse emphasized the point that there needs to be a serious increase in the interaction that occurs between the AI community and the human rights community.  While technological advancements can be wonderful and even lifesaving, it is vital that we evaluate the potential risks that come with them.  Just because something is possible does not mean it should be done, and multiple perspectives are necessary to effectively evaluate any given possibility.

The Experiences of Journalists in an Era of Crisis (Part II)

by Andy Carr

newspapers. Source: Renzo Borgatti, Creative Commons

From a human rights perspective, one key factor behind recent trends in American media might best be framed in terms of labor rights. Beneath the turmoil and headlines, a collective organizing and unionization effort at leading magazines and papers has emerged in recent years, including at Vox, The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, and others. Especially in media, focus has turned to the rising tide of labor unions – organizations which are formed by workers in the same sector (e.g., among journalists and related professions) to bargain collectively. Collective bargaining allows unionized workers to negotiate with a stronger hand; the more workers are included, the more their non-participation or, in extremis, walkouts, and strikes will affect their employer(s). Bargaining leads to a union contract which binds all employees and their employer (if approved by a pre-set threshold required) to baseline pay rates and other working conditions. In modern contexts, union contract conditions include working hours, overtime policies, paid leave and holidays, sick pay and health insurance, promotion qualifications and timelines, as well as equity and inclusion-oriented provisions, such as minority recruitment programs and diverse hiring initiatives. 

Journalist organizing movements follow in the footsteps of Depression-era unionizing efforts significantly set off by a call to action in the New York World-Telegram written by Heywood Broun, a famed columnist of the 1930s. The American Newspaper Guild subsequently exploded, and just “10 months after Broun’s first column, the Guild had 7,000 members, with 125 delegates from 70 papers” onboard. At the same time, as Steven Greenhouse explained in the Columbia Journalism Review last year, “many publishers [of the time] aggressively resisted unionization.” Famously, the Associated Press “fired a reporter, Morris Watson, for his pro-union activity,” leading to a lawsuit which reached the Supreme Court, Associated Press v. NLRB (1937). In that case, the Supreme Court “rejected the publishers’ arguments that their freedom of the press was being violated by federal laws” protecting unionization and collective bargaining, affirming the reach of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA). 

The NLRA remains a significant part of America’s federal law on employment and labor rights, and since its inception it has sought two broad aims: first, “to restore the equality of bargaining power” among workers and employers and, second, to “resolve the problem of depressed wages,” a ubiquitous concern in 1930s America (see Southern California Edison Co. v. Public Utilities Commission, 140 Cal. App. 4th 1085, 1100 (2006)). More than 80 years after its founding, however, the underlying goals of the NLRA remain widely unfulfilled, with nationwide union membership dropping year-over-year since at least 1983, and America’s journalists, in particular, have faced daunting challenges. To put it bluntly, journalists’ ongoing efforts to organize have met an organized, systemic response. 

Last May, Jones Day, one of the world’s largest law firms, held “a conference in its Manhattan office focused on labor and employment law in the news media industry,” an “invitation-only affair, bringing together Jones Day attorneys and media executives, in-house lawyers, and senior human resources personnel—in other words, anyone who might find themselves on the other side of a bargaining table from journalists trying to unionize.” Among the attendees were individuals from “The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, Univision, and Atlantic Media, among others,” and one of the “moderators leading the conference was Patricia Dunn, a longtime [Jones Day partner based in Washington, D.C.], and a former in-house counsel for the Post.” As CJR again summarized, Jones Day, 

“with Dunn often at the helm, has in recent years become a go-to for media executives facing union drives. At a time when uncertain market forces have driven more and more newsrooms to organize, Jones Day has become notorious for aggressive anti-union tactics that journalists and union leaders say have helped downgrade media union contracts and carve employee benefits to the bone. Jones Day’s portfolio of media outlets includes, among many others, Slate, whose union members voted [in December 2018] to authorize a strike amid pushback from management on their demands.”

These outlets hardly cover the range of past and ongoing union-busting efforts: New York magazine, Vox, the Boston Globe all have been accused of assertive anti-union tactics in the past few years. (Among these cases, however, Vox’s unionizing efforts recently succeeded in the dramatic form: on Friday, June 7, Vox Media staffers secured an industry-defining union contract after a 29-hour marathon negotiation. The contract set minimum salaries at $56,000, included generous leave policies for parents regardless of gender and included initiatives designed to improve diversity in management, among other provisions.) 

a room of journalists with laptops and cameras
Journalists. Source: UNClimateChange, Creative Commons

Even where writers and editors have had organizing success, their gains have proved temporary. As The New Yorker reported in November 2017, just one “week before [their] sites were shuttered, the staffs of DNAinfo and Gothamist had unionized with the Writers Guild of America, East,” one of two leading industry unions in America along with NewsGuild. DNAinfo and Gothamist comprised a network of locally oriented outlets in major cities, owned by billionaire Joe Ricketts, the founder of trillion-dollar “brokerage giant” TD Ameritrade and “a major right-wing donor who … has given millions of dollars to anti-labor politicians” across the United States. Former employees, speaking to The New Yorker, reported “that, in both coded and explicit ways, management had warned [staff] repeatedly in the months before they unionized that doing so would mean that the sites would cease to exist” – a seemingly clear instance of “threatening [unionizing] employees with closure,” in violation of federal law. 

Subverting workers’ collective organizing or their free association more broadly both constitute problematic strategies under international law, as well. The International Labor Organization (ILO), for instance, has spoken unequivocally on the fundamental right of workers to coordinate collective action, including rights to “freedom of association” and “the right to collective bargaining,” per the following excerpts:

ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (June 1998), Perambulatory Dedication:

“Whereas, in seeking to maintain the link between social progress and economic growth, the guarantee of fundamental principles and rights at work is of particular significance in that it enables the persons concerned, to claim freely and on the basis of equality of opportunity, their fair share of the wealth which they have helped to generate, and to achieve fully their human potential…”

ILO Fundamental Principles, operative clause (2) (emphasis added):

“Declares that all Members, even if they have not ratified the Conventions in question, have an obligation arising from the very fact of membership in the Organization to respect, to promote and to realize, in good faith and in accordance with the Constitution, the principles concerning the fundamental rights which are the subject of those Conventions, namely: 
(a) freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining
(b) the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour; 
(c) the effective abolition of child labour; and
(d) the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation…”

The UN Human Rights Council in 2008 also weighed in on corporations’ responsibilities vis-à-vis human rights, to include fundamental principles of labor rights. Although currently non-binding, the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights framework describes “business enterprises as specialized organs of society performing specialized functions,” but which also are “required to comply with all applicable laws and to respect human rights” (emphasis added). The Guiding Principles emerged in response to concerns about the nexus of human rights and transnational businesses specifically, yet are framed in generalized terms. Thus, the ongoing anti-organizing efforts of managers and owners in American media may constitute violations of not just domestic labor laws, but also an emerging corpus of international legal standards that might become binding rules in coming years. 

The foregoing issues merely scratch the surface. Strong-arm labor tactics often combine with the toxicity of online media culture generally and the lawsuit-begging misconduct of particular outlets. For example, a 2018 New York article on the culture at Vice Media cites a “senior manager [who] once joked that the company’s hiring strategy had a ’22 Rule’: ‘Hire 22-year-olds, pay them $22,000, and work them 22 hours a day.’” Vice, then, might provide a serviceable avatar for American media problems – a culture of toxicity, outright abuse, and constant uncertainty about reporters’ job security combined with increasingly “widely lauded” output, such as Vice’s work with HBO and a documentary which “offered one of the first looks inside the Islamic State,” from 2014. Vice, notably, has been embroiled in back-and-forth union negotiations since January 2018, prompting over “75 current and former writers for HBO” to sign a petition requesting Vice Media “sign a strong union contract.” 

With the enduring stalemate over unionizing efforts at BuzzFeed News and another round of layoffs in recent weeks—including the total elimination of Ebony’s online team, allegedly without pay for work already done, earlier in June—a complex push and pull continues. Media organizing successes and setbacks like that above highlight the urgency of needed protections. 

 

The Crisis in American Journalism Is a Labor Rights Crisis (Part I)

by Andy Carr

a photo of a newsstand
news. Source: Anthony Lazaro, Creative Commons

To say American media has struggled in recent decades would be an understatement, but the past weeks of extensive newsroom layoffs cut especially deep. As CNN reported on January 24, from Monday to Thursday of that week, at least 1,000 journalists were laid off nationwide, including 15 percent of BuzzFeed News personnel (approximately 220 individuals), 7 percent of various Verizon-owned entities’ staff (including HuffPost, AOL, and Yahoo News), and widespread cuts at Gannett, America’s largest newspaper owner. At BuzzFeed News alone, the entire national news desk staff was gone by January 25, along with all but one of the LGBT-focused reporters at the company and the national security staff.

That devastating week’s news follows years of similar stories far beyond the present decade’s startups and digital innovators. Last spring, Sridhar Pappu and Jay Stowe of the New York Times provided a concise yet devastating account of the shifting media landscape since the dawn of the twenty-first century, including the collapse of marquee legacy publications like TIME magazine:

When Time Warner merged with AOL in 2000, the company seemed poised to conquer the internet. History, however, had other plans. Subscribers and advertisers turned away from the core publications. Budgets shrank. Layoffs became commonplace. In 2014, Time Inc. was spun off from the Time Warner mother ship, and in 2015 it left the Time & Life building for a comparatively modest space on Liberty Street in Lower Manhattan.

TIME, along with parent company Time Inc.’s other leading magazines, like Sports Illustrated, Fortune, and Money, had been purchased in fall 2017 by media conglomerate Meredith Corp., before putting the Time portfolio up for sale just six months later. Gannett, meanwhile, recently was described as “the most voracious acquirer of local papers in the news business,” publishing national outlets like USA Today and major-market papers “including The Arizona Republic, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and The Cincinnati Enquirer.” Even Gannett is exposed to looming concerns: Alden Global Capital, a New York-based global hedge fund founded in 2007, offered a hostile bid to takeover Gannett for $1.4 billion. As The Week reported earlier in January,

[The] strategy of buying and cutting [media staff] is exactly the one that Gannett pursued as it grew into the biggest newspaper owner in the country. Alden is following Gannett’s own logic, taken to its furthest extreme. So far, wherever Digital First [Alden’s media subsidiary] has gone, ‘a bevy of job cuts’ has followed. [So, if] Alden succeeds in its bid, it will be a waking nightmare for anyone who cares about newspapers.

Many such stories have wrenched the field of journalism since the 1990s, and one need not look far back into archives to see the expansive damage. The Weekly Standard, a conservative outlet which in its waning months of operation “exhibited a cover-to-cover vibrancy that had eluded it for more than a decade,” was “snuffed” out of existence by owner Phil Anschutz last December; Glamour announced last November that the 80-year-old print version of the magazine would cease production, “shifting to a digital-only operation” after January 2019; international titles with U.S.-based parent organizations, like men’s magazine ShortList and Cosmopolitan Australia, also closed in 2018. Among America’s local and regional newspapers, the bludgeoning has proved even more draconian: approximately “1,800 local papers have closed or merged since 2004,” according to a 2018 CNN report.

As I wrote late last year, journalism—and journalists, individually—are linked inextricably to human rights concerns, as the “chroniclers” of human rights abuses, making them known to the world, as advocates and agents of human rights causes they cover, and as the targets of increasingly frequent abuses globally. The stunning decline of American news media broadly affects both deep-dive investigative journalism and analysis, along with on-the-ground reporting of current affairs. In so doing, these structural changes to the industry threaten journalism’s integral role in cataloging, reporting, and advancing human rights.

an older man reading the newspaper
Reading the newspaper. Source: Nicolas Alejandro, Creative Commons

These systemic changes to the news media landscape often have been grouped into two broad categories: the overall consolidation of American mass media, among other industries, since the end of the twentieth century (a two-time subject of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, back in 2017), and the massive shift to mobile and online-based advertising, where aggregate revenue overwhelmingly is concentrated in leading digital companies like Facebook and Google. According to a 2018 estimate reported in Adweek, those two companies alone account for “around 85 percent of every new digital dollar” entering the mobile and online ad spaces. Facebook in particular already functions “as one of the world’s largest distributors of information,” a reality it “acknowledged” in early 2017 “by announcing the Facebook Journalism Project.” The Project “calls for the company to forge deeper ties with publishers,” to help “develop training programs and tools for journalists,” and to “help train members of the public to find news sources they trust, while fighting the spread of fake news across its site.” While Facebook had met with thousands of publishers by mid-year 2017; actual financial support, i.e., the transfer of advertising revenue streams or any other profit-generating opportunities, remain illusory, and outside the scope of Facebook’s efforts.

Clearly, American mass media faces several structural challenges, but why is any of this relevant for human rights-related concerns?  Why is the labor crisis in journalism a human rights concern unto itself? The effects are manifold.  First, media consolidation has been found to affect the “viewpoint diversity” of media broadly – meaning, consolidation might restrain the variety of views and issues covered in papers and online outlets.  As early as 1999, the late Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) wrote about his concerns about the early stages of media consolidation as a threat to American democracy.  In a Federal Communications Law Journal article, Sen. Wellstone expressed grave concerns about a then-pending merger of CBS and Viacom, among a “recent wave of mergers among media companies,” all of which might pose threats “for our representative democracy” and accordingly “warrant the highest level of scrutiny by … antitrust agencies” (p. 551).  The Senator continued, presciently arguing that America’s media is not just any ordinary industry.  It is the life-blood of American democracy.  We depend on the media for the free flow of information that enables citizens to participate in the democratic process.  As James Madison wrote in 1822, ‘A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.’  That’s why freedom of the press is enshrined in our Constitution.  No other industry enjoys that kind of protection (p. 551-552).

Speaking of the media’s macro-role, Sen. Wellstone concluded that, for America’s “democracy to work, we depend on the media to do two things.  We depend on them to provide citizens with access to a wide and diverse range of opinions, analyses, and perspectives” and, second, “we depend on the media to hold concentrated power—whether public or private power—accountable to the people” (p. 552).  Thus, “greater diversity of ownership and control” confers superior ability among journalists “to perform those functions” which are so vital.  The empirical record for that proposition, admittedly, is mixed – as a 2009 study by Daniel E. Ho and Kevin M. Quinn in the Stanford Law Review found twenty years after Sen. Wellstone’s article was published.  (The question remains an open, hotly debated one, nonetheless, especially among legal scholars.)

Regardless of consolidation’s effects on viewpoints in journalism, the effects on reporters’ professional capabilities—to fulfill the democratic functions outlined by Sen. Wellstone and to highlight, in particular, human rights stories at home and around the world—are less ambiguous.  On the one hand, the renewed implosion of the field has exposed journalists to protracted, targeted, organized abuse online, especially through social media attacks, which journalists have used to share job opportunities and freelance gigs during the cycles of layoffs, and just as often to provide support to or commiserate with former colleagues and other industry peers.  As writer and journalist Maya Kosoff put it in a January 29 tweet, she was “overwhelmed by how helpful and supportive people have been [through Twitter] over the past week” of layoffs, and dedicated to finding ways “to pay it forward” to others in the field.

For present purposes, worries run deeper.  As writer Rebecca Traister put it in a reflective tweet amid the layoff chaos in late January, it is difficult to “fathom the number of talented journalists being taken away from the work they were in the midst of doing this week.  This is a travesty” – and a harbinger of what is to come in the event of further consolidations and layoffs.  To take just one example, BuzzFeed News reporter Mike Giglio—among those who were laid off last month—produced extensive, in-depth stories during his more than five years with the company.  His reporting on U.S. involvement in Syria regularly touched upon the complexities of both foreign policy stratagem and the dire concerns of civilians exposed to human rights abuses.  Last fall, Mr. Giglio perceptively deconstructed the geopolitical morass of the Jamal Khashoggi killing, accounting for the crosscutting interests of Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. with deeply reported interviews and analysis.

After the BuzzFeed News desk was effectively “demolished,” dozens of talented reporters and writers like Giglio are now forced into an unforgiving job market, sitting on dormant stories and leads.  Similar stories at the abovementioned outlets reeling from layoffs—from HuffPo to AOL, Gannett to the more-recent purges at McClatchy—abound.  The gutting of newsrooms around America is a profound pain for writers and their families, personally.  But the ongoing thinning of journalism’s most-talented ranks undermines the whole public’s access to vital information needed to hold human rights abusers to account as well.  The stakes are high.

Fast-Fashion: Unethical and Unsustainable

Garment workers working at sewing machines in a factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh.
Bangladesh.Gazipur BIGUF.2015.Solidarity Center. Source: Solidarity Center, Creative Commons

Prior to the 1960s, about 90% of the clothes purchased in the United States were also made here.  Since then, it has been reduced to only about 3%.  Over the years, companies have increasingly chosen to outsource their labor to countries with lax labor laws (or a willingness to overlook them) to pay less for the work that is necessary for clothing production.  The purpose of this blog is to highlight the negative impacts of these choices based on the information given in the documentary True Cost.

The term “fast-fashion” refers to the shift in the fashion industry that has resulted in faster production with lower costs.  At first glance, this appears to be an extremely beneficial change, especially for the general United States consumer.  We can buy more clothes and spend less money in the process.  However, it is important that we take time to ask how it is possible to the industry to have changed the way that it did.  What does it really cost?

Garment Workers

When discussing the costs of the fast-fashion industry, one of the most well-known examples is the Rana Plaza building collapse of 2013 that occurred in Dhaka, Bangladesh. At the time, the building was being occupied by garment factories for western companies such as Children’s Place, Joe Fresh, and Walmart.  Workers in the factories told their managers that they had noticed cracks in the building but were told to go back to work.  At one point, the managers were even given an evacuation order (which they ignored).  Nothing was done.  As a result, 1,129 workers died, and even more were injured.

Outside of the tragedies that have occurred in the industry’s factories, many of the factories cut corners on a regular basis to reduce production costs.  Work areas are frequently found to have poor lighting, which can be damaging to the workers’ sight, and toxic chemicals, which can be harmful to their respiratory systems.  As of 2016, the minimum wage in $67 dollars each month, which is far less than fair compensation for the labor of these workers, especially in such poor conditions.  More often than not, these workers cannot simply quit and find work with better circumstances.  They must be able to provide for themselves and their families and lack the education and qualifications for more favorable employment.

Environment

Fast-fashion is also an incredibly unsustainable industry.  Eileen Fisher, a high-end fashion retailer who aims to use sustainable and ethical production methods, has called the clothing industry “the second-largest polluter in the world.”  It’s easy to see why.  In 2013 alone, 15.1 million tons of textile waste were created.  The majority of this waste ends up piled up in landfills.  These piles release methane as they decompose and are a noteworthy factor in global warming.  Even if their relationship with global warming were not an issue, the amount of land required to store of all this waste is simply unacceptable.

Leather tanneries are also a significantly harmful part of the clothing industry.  The chemicals used in the tanning process are extremely toxic and are often disposed incorrectly.  This leads to the pollution of the drinking water, soil, and produce of the communities surrounding the tanneries.  These chemicals lead to serious illness and diseases.  People living in these areas are facing skin problems, numbness of limbs, and stomach problems.  The chemicals are poisonous to both the environment and the health of human beings.  Not only do climate change and pollution have harmful effects that we can see today, but they are also severely damaging to the world and resources that future generations will have access to.

People in the street in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Wide avenue in Old Dhaka. Source: Francisco Anzola, Creative Commons

Human Rights

The issue of fast-fashion is one that impacts many different areas in human rights.  Regarding employment, Article 23 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that every person has the right to “just and favourable conditions of work,” as well as the right to “just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity.”  The harmful work environments and low-wages involved in the clothing industry prevent workers from accessing these rights. Additionally, Article 25, the UDHR depicts the right to a standard of living that is sufficient to maintain an individual’s health and well-being, which requires an adequate income.

Fast-fashion also has a connection to gender equality.  In the garment industry, 85% of the workers are women.  Often, these women are single mothers without any other real employment options, due to a lack in access to education and other similar resources.  They continue to work in poor working conditions because they want their children to be able to go to school and have better job opportunities in the future.

What You Can Do 

It is easy to fall into feeling like there is nothing you can do on this side of the counter and ocean.  Fast-fashion seems to be a very distant issue.  However, there are changes you can make in your own life to be a part of the transformation of the fashion industry.  First and foremost, it is important that you make an effort to stay informed on the issue and inform others as well.  A problem cannot be solved if no one acknowledges that it exists. Second, if you can afford it, buy from brands such as Eileen Fisher and People Tree who work to produce clothing through sustainable and ethical methods.  Such companies are generally more expensive than what we have become accustomed to because of the fast-fashion industry, but the products are typically of a higher quality.  If you need more affordable options, try to get clothes second-hand, whether that be through clothing swaps or going to thrift shops.  Apps like Depop and Poshmark, make it possible to buy clothes directly from other individuals, or sell your old clothes directly to other people.  Selling your unwanted clothes through apps like these, you can help keep clothing out of landfills.  Donating clothes can be a great option when you want to clean out your closet, but it is best when you can come relatively close to directly giving clothes to the people who will receive them.  Of the clothes that are donated to “mission stores” like Goodwill, only about 10% are purchased in those stores, and the rest have the potential to end up in landfills.

Finally, though the aforementioned options are wonderful and should warrant consideration and use, it is imperative to recognize that we do not need to purchase clothing nearly as often as we do.  Advertising glamorizes things that we do not really need so that we will spend more money.  New trends come out nearly every week, so we feel the need to buy more stuff just to keep up.  Society has become very consumeristic, and this contributes to industries, such as fast-fashion, that disregard the health and safety of their workers to allow people in countries like the United States spend as much money as possible.  By purchasing less of what we do not need, we can avoid supporting these harmful practices while also saving money ourselves.

You may not always be a part of large-scale change, but you can make small, daily changes that, when combined with the efforts of others, can truly make a difference.

“We’ve got to see it through”

I AM A MAN. Source: Ashleigh Burt, Creative Commons

Today is the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tragic death. It is imperative we reflect on his contributions as a civil and human rights icon while working together, in these trying times, to pursue Dr. King’s dream. This blog, the first in IHR’s MLK, Jr. 50 series, commemorates Dr. King’s commitment to economic and social justice by describing the events preceding his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee.

On February 1, 1968, two Memphis Department of Public Works garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed and accidentally killed by a deficient truck. In the following weeks, amid repetitive neglect from the city, 1,300 black men representing the department went on strike. One of the garbage collectors, T.O. Jones, took on the role as a union organizer, alongside American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) president Jerry Wurf, demanding union recognition, improved safety standards and a better wage.

Though the sanitation workers were granted a charter in 1965 by the AFSCME, a 1966 strike that addressed usage of out-of-service trucks and overtime pay was foiled by then-mayor Henry Loeb. On February 11th, 700 men attended a union meeting, ultimately deciding to go on strike and, within a week, the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) officially supported their efforts. On February 22nd, a sanitation worker led sit-in provoked a City Council vote to recognize their union. However, under Mayor Loeb’s authority, this vote was rejected.

After Mayor Loeb’s controversial decision, a nonviolent march to City Hall led resulted in local police challenging demonstrators with mace and tear gas. This event generated a meeting between 150 local religious leaders, where they formed the Community on the Move for Equality (COME). COME was a nonviolent disobedience collective, led by Dr. King’s ally James Lawson, designed to fill Memphis jails and create attention for the sanitation workers’ plight.

After being updated by Lawson over the phone, Dr. King arrived to Memphis on March 18th and spoke to a crowd of nearly 25,000, the largest indoor civil rights gathering at the time, where he exclaimed, “You are demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one black person suffers, if one black person is down, we are all down”, encouraging a citywide sanitation work stoppage.

On March 28th, thousands of strike supporters and Dr. King attempted to march, but violence promptly cut the event short. This was followed with shop looting and the murder of a 16-year old by a police officer. Though Dr. King sought refuge in a hotel, many of the marchers fled to Clayborn Temple where police released tear gas into the place of worship and proceeded to club disoriented activists. Subsequently, Mayor Loeb declared martial law, leading to the deployment of 4,000 troops from the National Guard. However, avoiding discouragement, over 200 striking workers marched the following day, holding the acclaimed “I Am A Man” protest signs.

Memphis sanitation workers strike watched by the National Guard in 1968. Source: Abayomi Azikiwe, Creative Commons

Back at his home in Atlanta, working on the Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. King considered not returning to the chaos in Memphis, but, in the name of successful nonviolent struggle for economic justice, decided he must. Reluctant to invite Dr. King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) agreed to welcome him back on April 3th where he presented his legendary “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, declaring, “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end.  Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through”. The following evening, Dr. King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, leading to national mourning and despair.

Under scrutiny from this tragedy, President Lyndon Johnson ordered his Undersecretary of Labor to negotiate a deal with Memphis leaders to end the strike. Soon after, on April 8th, 42,000 people, led by Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, SCLC and union leaders, marched to City Hall where AFSCME pledged to support the sanitation workers until the bitter end. On April 16th, negotiations finally allowed the City Council to offer the union a deal, finally ending the 65-day strike and guaranteeing sanitation workers a better wage.

Over the past 50 years, the progress made in Memphis of 1968 has served as a microcosm of labor rights accomplishments across the nation. However, the current U.S. political climate threatens these achievements by decreasing the number of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors, rolling back public reporting of workplace deaths, removing paycheck transparency and banning forced arbitration clauses for sexual and discriminatory violations.

Reflecting on the Memphis sanitation strike demonstrates how the voice of a generation helped intensify one community’s plight, though it is also a testament of how ordinary people can successfully advocate for social justice when they believe “we’ve got to see it through”.