Who was John DeLury Sr. and why did the city name a park after him? The short answer is that he was founder and 40 year president of New York’s Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, Local 831.
The longer, more interesting, story involves an epic struggle for labor justice in New York City that ignited a movement around the country. Although John DeLury is not a household name today, if you lived in New York in February 1968, there was no way you could not know who he was or take for granted the work performed by the sanitation men whom he represented.
In 1968, the self-educated former dump attendant from Brooklyn brought the city to its knees when he led 7000 sanitation workers on strike demanding a contract that offered fair pay and a decent pension. For nine days, the collection of the garbage and cleaning of the streets came to a standstill throughout the city. Swirls of filth swept through the street and mounds of garbage caught fire. Not wanting to endanger the most vulnerable populations, the workers continued to collect garbage at schools, municipal hospitals and nursing homes. Mayor John Lindsay asked DC37, the city’s largest municipal union, to collect the garbage and break the strike. When the union refused to be scabs, the mayor asked Governor Nelson Rockefeller to send in the National Guard. The municipal unions joined together and threatened a general strike if the guard was brought in, leading to negotiations that ended the strike and gave the union members a 20-year pension plan and two contracts which netted a $5000 pay increase. Two days later, inspired by the success of the strike, African American sanitations workers in Memphis went on strike. Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis on April 3rd to support the workers who were paid significantly less than their white co-workers. Only one day later, MLK was assassinated, forever linking the struggle of the union workers in NYC with the labor movement in Memphis and the struggle of African Americans for civil rights.
DeLury always said that his greatest triumphs was getting the term changed from "garbageman" to "sanitation worker." As he liked to say, "We may pick up garbage, but we are not garbage."
If he was still alive, John DeLury would surely salute the work of the Friends of DeLury Park, who like the sanitation workers of the city, strive to make our small piece of the city cleaner, more beautiful and more functional. So next time you see one the Friends dedicated volunteers picking up a dropped cigarette or a discarded can, tip your hat to them and think of all the workers, both paid and unpaid, who make it easier and better for us to live, work and visit our city.
– Amy Greenhouse (Photos: calebmaupin.blogspot.com)