April 4 marks the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination in Memphis where he had gone to support sanitation workers seeking collective bargaining rights. Everyone knows the end of the speech he gave the night before, you know-- "I have been to the mountaintop" "I've seen the promised land" "I might not get there with you" etc-- but do you remember what comes before that?-- “Let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. . . . All labor has dignity.”
As a refresher, here's a short AFSCME video about the sanitation workers' strike:
As it happens a collection (All Labor Has Dignity) of Dr. King's speeches on labor was just released this year. The Atlantic interviews editor Michael Honey:
In a 1968 speech, King asks: "What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?" Had he started to feel that race reform was doomed without economic reform, and vice versa?Here's Prof. Honey giving a talk on the significance of the King speeches (I advise skipping ahead to the 30 minute mark for the most substantive discussion).
He did say that the civil rights that we'd attained from Brown vs. Board of Education to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were a remarkable change, but after that he really did emphasize economic issues. The urban areas were exploding all across the country. There were riots, police brutality, and National Guard occupation of black communities. The fact was, in the urban areas, civil rights didn't do anything to change the economic situation for the mass of working class people. Those were people that should have had jobs and union wages, who should have been advancing themselves. Instead, factories were shutting down. Jobs were being shipped overseas. The urban areas were being stripped of all economic activities. It was like stranding the millions of people who'd migrated to the cities for jobs. So, without an economic program—yes, that's what he was saying—the civil rights we've gained won't be meaningful for most people.
Honey, notes for a Memphis newspaper the similarities between the historic strike and our present labor struggle,
"The two things Gov. (Scott) Walker took away from public employees in Wisconsin were collective bargaining rights and union dues collection," Honey said. "Those were the exact two points around which the Memphis strike revolved. Mayor (Henry) Loeb absolutely refused to engage in collective bargaining. He said, 'You can have a union ... we just won't bargain with it,' which means your union is useless. And secondly, 'We'll never deduct dues from your wages.' He knew that was crucial for this group of workers because they were so poor that, if it wasn't deducted from their wages, it was really hard to get the dues money from them. Translating that to today," said Honey, "if your union can't bargain for you, why would you pay dues? It's totally an anti-union strategy on his (Walker's) part, and it was the same thing King was fighting in Memphis."Another interesting look at the Memphis sanitation workers comes from the "I am a Man" project in Memphis where you can find a DVD and curriculum guide, or you can view oral histories from workers and others who were a part of this historic movement.
Moving from this historic coupling of union organizing with the language of rights to the present day, consider this tribute video for the workers of Wisconsin.
Be sure to visit the We Are One website to find We Are One events near you (and if you live in Wisconsin, exercise your right to vote on Tuesday!)