Cummins workers honor King’s legacy
BY COREY DAVIS
Thursday, April 5, 2018
WHITAKERS — Union workers at Cummins Rocky Mount Engine Plant held an event Wednesday at the Bloomer Hill Community Center in remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
King was in Memphis on April 4, 1968, to support a sanitation workers’ strike after two workers had been crushed by a malfunctioning garbage truck compactor, sparking a strike by about 1,300 black sanitation workers protesting poor working conditions and racist treatment.
Jim Wrenn, president of the Carolina Auto, Aerospace & Machine Workers Union-UE Local 150 at Cummins, said in the summer of 1978, Rocky Mount sanitation workers staged a series of walkouts and spearheaded a community struggle against racial injustice in defense of arrested and fired co-worker Alexander Evans, who was accused of stealing a suit of clothes off the back steps of a home in the wealthy white Englewood neighborhood in Rocky Mount.
With the help of community leaders such as the Rev. Thomas Walker and Naomi Green, Evans was later exonerated and reinstated to his job, Wrenn said. The Phoenix Historical Society has submitted an application to the N.C. Highway Historical Advisory Committee for a proposed marker for the 1978 sanitation workers strike.
“The sanitation workers strike and community support movement that succeeded in reinstating and exonerating Alexander Evans was considered a major victory for civil and labor rights,” Wrenn said. “It had been said the civil rights movement bypassed Rocky Mount during he 1960s. Even though, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Rocky Mount in 1962 and gave speech some say first used the words, ‘I have a Dream,’ Rocky Mount never experienced mass marches and boycotts as in other Southern cities. The 1978 struggle is seen as the major civil rights movement in Rocky Mount and Nash and Edgecombe counties.”
Wrenn also talked about how the union started a campaign at Cummins in 1990 to push the company to allow the King holiday in January to be observed as a holiday for the workers at the plant. The holiday was later approved by the company eight months later, Wrenn said.
In a February memo to employees, Cummins President Rich Freeland announced that the company will increase the entry pay for all of its U.S. employees to $15 an hour. Wrenn talked about how this was a major victory for workers but said there are many contract workers at Cummins who aren’t getting the minimum $15 an hour and the fight for them to receive a living wage must continue.
“Our union has showed over the last 25 years what we can accomplish, and it has been inspired by Dr. King at the very beginning first by the struggle to get the King holiday to be a paid holiday,” Wrenn said.
Cummins Rocky Mount Engine Plant joined Cummins’ workers from West Virginia and New York in a joint day of action to recognize the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination by continuing his fight for economic justice and affordable health care. The union workers wore stickers that read “Cummins High Deductible Make Us Sick.”
A banner put up by the union from a quote by King read, “Of all forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane. Wrenn said Cummins’ union workers are pushing to have $1,000 more in their health saving accounts.
“The best way to honor Dr. King’s sacrifice is to recommit to the values of solidarity and justice that inspired him, and to stand up together,” Luke Farley, business agent at Teamster Local 175 in West Virginia. “Cummins can’t bankrupt families and endanger their health on one hand while calling itself socially responsible on the other.”