Memphis, Tenn., is the city where political strongman E. H. "Boss" Crump launched what labor historian Michael Honey called a "Reign of Terror" in 1940 against efforts by the Congress of Industrial Organizations to organize the giant Firestone Tire and Rubber Company.
Police raids, beatings, arrests, and unprovoked street confrontations of blacks across the city succeeded in preventing the CIO from successfully organizing workers. One union activist, Robert Cotton, became one of Memphis' "disappeared."
Fifteen years later, the South's leading segregationists -- among them, Strom Thurmond and Mendel Rivers of South Carolina, "Big Jim" Eastland of Mississippi, Leander Perez of Louisiana and Herman Talmadge of Georgia -- met in the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis to organize the Federation for Constitutional Government. They declared war against union organizers as well as civil rights activists.
And, of course, in 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. lost his life in Memphis after supporting the city's striking sanitation workers.
Today Memphis is against a center of labor strife as hundreds of workers protest their months-long lockout by the Battle Creek, Mich.-based cereal-making giant Kellogg. The workers, members of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union, refused to approve a company plan to cut wages and benefits as well as hire new "casual" workers at lower pay.
The 200-plus locked-out workers, an estimated 60 percent of whom are black, say production of Frosted Flakes, Corn Flakes, and Froot Loops has dropped to less than half. Still, the company has brought in scabs to replace the workers, and it insists that production is keeping pace with consumer demand.
This is yet another example of a company trying to join its Wall Street brethren in busting unions and lowering pay and benefits for workers in the process. Kellogg profits totaled $352 million for the quarter ending last June, up $28 million from the same period the previous year.
The lockout focused on Memphis because the company's contract agreement with workers there expired last October. The lockout does not extend to the Kellogg plant in Rossville, Tenn.
Meanwhile, the Memphis workers are marching and protesting in freezing temperatures, and the company has cut their health care and life insurance benefits.
Citizens in Memphis are showing their support for the workers, however. An online petition has gained some 8,500 signatures, and hundreds rallied at the plant in November in a show of solidarity.
I know that I, for one, am not eating another bowl of any Kellogg cereals until the workers get fair treatment.