In spirit of King, Philly hospitality workers continue to press for economic justice

Hospitality workers and faith leaders from throughout Philadelphia joined together to fast and pray at City Hall Wednesday in support of economic justice. The gathering marked the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death in Memphis, where he had been supporting the rights of black sanitation workers — including their right to unionize.

Roughly 35 members of the union UNITE HERE Local 274 decided to abstain from work and food to recognize King’s legacy and the ongoing struggle for workers’ rights. In Philadelphia, the median income for hotel and restaurant workers is less than $18,000 per year.

About 120 people took part in the prayer circle and vigil in the middle of the City Hall courtyard.

Even after fasting for most of the day, Alton Sawyer, a house supervisor at the Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown, said he felt “magnificent.”

Sawyer, who is black, grew up in South Philadelphia in the 1960s and said he endured daily racism from his white neighbors. Walking the eight blocks to school meant being chased and harassed.

“When I was young and going to school, I used to have to worry about how I would get to school,” said Sawyer. “And by the time you got to school, your mind wasn’t on concentrating on school, it was more on ‘How am I going to get home?’ ”

Sawyer, who identified strongly with the black community of the South at the time, often says that he grew up in “South Carolina, Philadelphia.” King’s legacy, he says, “means everything to me.”

A union member for 28 years, Sawyer said he sees his work in the union as inseparable from the fight for racial justice and other struggles. He regularly speaks at marches, including those in support of immigration and LGBTQ rights.

“So that also gives me a brighter look on the future, because once you can gather a lot of people and they listen, same way King did back in the day … it’s a beautiful thing.”

Earlene Bly is also no stranger to activism. She said the Wednesday fast was nothing for her, adding that she once consumed only water for two weeks to demand safety in schools.

As an active member of her union, Bly said she feels that she is continuing King’s fight.

“Still we’re fighting for economic justice. That’s what he was fighting [for] at that time, because that’s what being in the union means, that you just want to be treated like a human being.

“You want to be paid a living wage so you can take care of your family,” said Bly, who works as a housekeeper at the Wyndham Hotel.

Despite double hip-replacement surgery a few weeks ago, Bly showed up in the rain with a walker and a strong resolve.

“I’m really supposed to be home, but I just could not miss this day,” she said. “I had to be here.”

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