Advertisement
  1. Archive

"Not just a strike _ it was a cause'

Joe Savage's booming "hello" overwhelms his tiny stucco duplex and resonates through the neighborhood.

The rich timbre of that voice is still one of the first things people notice about him, though these days the retired sanitation worker mostly uses that voice to sing praise to God in his church choir.

Three decades ago, striking sanitation workers followed his voice through the streets of St. Petersburg in dozens of protest marches on City Hall _ a long, hot summer of police in riot helmets, piles of rotting garbage and workers' demands for a raise.

This week marks 30 years since 211 city garbage collectors _ all but one black _ walked off the job and ignited the city's most profound social change in recent history: Black workers got higher wages, the first black City Council member was elected, and black residents were no longer afraid to shop and socialize in areas once off-limits.

For Savage and others who saw the violence three decades ago, and again during the civil disturbances of 1996, these two chapters are different. Different times, different dynamics, different people.

But as the city looks for solutions, the lessons of the 1968 sanitation strike still carry meaning for those who walked off the job, marched in the street and suffered in jail for the sake of unity, better treatment and a decent wage.

"The city as a whole," said Savage, now 73, "is still getting something out of it."

In a photo of Joe Savage being arrested in the summer of 1968, two police officers in riot helmets are carting him off to jail, each holding one of his legs. Savage is laughing.

When you ask him why, he quotes a B.B. King song about someone who is laughing because it is all he can do to keep from crying.

Savage laughed a lot that summer.

The civil rights movement was exploding in other cities around the country: strikes, beatings and boycotts. A month earlier, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., where he had gone to support striking garbage collectors.

In St. Petersburg, sanitation workers' grievances had been building. There were broken promises about a raise. A "streamlining" of the garbage department cut the work force by 25 percent. Heavier garbage tubs, about 150 pounds, were especially difficult for older men previously injured on the job.

Enough was enough.

Sanitation workers walked off the job May 6. The city eventually fired them. Savage, a 43-year-old gregarious crew chief, was their spokesman along with James Sanderlin, a lawyer who took on civil rights causes and became Pinellas' first black judge in 1972. He died in 1990.

The workers began daily marches. Sanderlin and Savage were at the front of every line. They'd start at the community center at Jordan Park and sing all the way to City Hall.

"We'd set off and someone would call out, "Where's Willie?' " recalled Willie Reddish, a former garbage truck driver. "I was a singer. I led a lot of singing up that street."

Don Jones, at 42 the city's youngest mayor, thought the sanitation men deserved a raise they had been promised, though he didn't condone a strike, which at the time was illegal.

"I wanted us to be part of the 20th century and a part of the United States," Jones said recently.

Gradually, the tenor of the dispute changed.

"Outside agitators," as those at City Hall called them, began paying attention to St. Petersburg. In mid-August, the city's black neighborhoods were rocked by four days of violence. Authorities used an armored anti-riot vehicle to shoot tear gas. A civil emergency was declared.

It was never clear what caused the violence, but some say it was sparked by a police beating of a local activist, Joe Waller Jr., who now goes by the name of Omali Yeshitela.

When Savage begins to talk about that summer, his voice softens, his words slow.

"To be truthful with you, there were times during that four months that I didn't think I was going to make it," Savage said. "I can't forget about it, but sometimes I wish I could.

"I shouldn't have _ we shouldn't have _ faced getting killed for asking for enough money to feed our kids with."

Changes that endure

It's a small group. Maybe 10 men who were with the department in 1968 remain on the job today. A handful of retirees are sprinkled through the city.

They are working-class, politically moderate men. After the garbage dispute, most went back to their separate lives _ family, jobs and church.

But that summer forged a lasting camaraderie.

And it brought changes that endure, said Alexander Robinson, 64, a sanitation worker who marched in 1968 and still drives a garbage truck for the city.

"We made a lot of difference, and I have a good feeling about that," he said.

The workers who walked off were hired back as openings occurred. They made more money, and slowly conditions improved.

"It was a hard summer, but everything worked out for the better," said Savage, who worked for the city for 37 years before retiring in 1987.

Strikers got a 6 percent raise and overtime pay for a mandatory sixth workday.

Eventually, the city went to curb-side pickup. Previously, the collectors would have to go behind each house and tote garbage tubs to the trucks. In the 1980s, automation arrived.

Fred Winters, a striker who has become head of the union representing city sanitation workers, sees other measures of progress. In the last decade, the department has had a substantial number of retirees. It used to be, Winters said, that the job was so physically demanding that men would injure themselves, die or leave before they could retire.

And he sees workers able to buy cars and houses. Nothing fancy, but they're earning a living wage.

The significance of the strike, however, went beyond economics.

"I really don't necessarily believe it was about wages as much as it was about racism, even though wages was the catalyst," Winters said. "The sanitation workers and blacks in St. Petersburg as a whole weren't treated the same after that time."

Soon after the strike, in 1969, St. Petersburg elected its first black City Council member, C. Bette Wimbish.

And with official changes came unofficial ones. Black residents felt more comfortable going to grocery stores and nightspots where they previously had not felt welcome.

A new generation

Those working to better the lives of black people in St. Petersburg will tell you it's still all about economics. About empowerment.

City Council member Ernest Fillyau said he sees the despair of young people in his largely black district. Their hope of employment, he said, comes from "plantation businesses" that offer minimum wage, service sector jobs.

As he sees it, economic frustrations fueled the 1968 garbage strike and played a part in the disturbances that erupted after police in 1996 shot TyRon Lewis, a black man.

At that point, Fillyau said, the similarities fade.

"It's a new generation of frustration with less patience and less values and more knowledge of freedom," he said.

And the black community in 1990s St. Petersburg is more fragmented, in geography and opinion.

Yeshitela, a St. Petersburg-grown socialist, views the disturbances of 18 months ago as the embers from the fire of the 1960s.

He was not a sanitation worker in 1968. But he was deeply involved in protests that summer that intersected, and at times merged, with those of the sanitation workers. His efforts were decidedly more militant. And so is his take on connections between then, now and the future.

"We're going to see worse than that," Yeshitela said of the 1996 disturbances.

The former strikers will tell you there's a big difference between their summer of protest and the two nights of violent disturbances in 1996.

Winters said the solidarity of the 1960s didn't happen after the Lewis shooting.

"The entire community was behind us. They were with us," Winters said. "The TyRon Lewis thing _ I don't think everybody felt the same way about it."

The striking sanitation workers involved in events of 30 years ago believe they were fighting the good fight. The issues then, they say, were much more clear-cut. The support was there from a community that did everything from feed their families to bail them out of jail.

"I never had any regrets from day one to this day," Winters said. "It was not just a strike. It was a cause."

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement