Celebrate MLK, Celebrate Labor Unions

Martin Luther King Jr. was an advocate of strong labor unions because he believed in economic justice. Below are some excerpts from an article that show the importance of labor unions to help workers unite and work toward economic and professional respect... ideas and arguments that we are still making today. Unions are attacked because workers come together and demand better treatment. See the whole article by Michael Honey here. from "Martin Luther King and Union Rights":

Throughout his life, King stood up for union rights. His teachings about the rights of labor can serve us well in our own trying times, when those rights are under fresh assault.

One of King’s phrases that we rarely hear is this: “All labor has dignity.” King spoke these words to a mass meeting of over 10,000 people in Memphis on March 18, 1968, in the midst of a strike of 1,300 black sanitation workers. Some 40% of these workers were so poor they received welfare benefits even though they worked 60-hour weeks. Speaking of both sanitation workers in Memphis and the working poor across the country, King said, “You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”

But the strike was not just about pay. “Let it be known everywhere,” King declared, “that along with wages and all of the other securities that you are struggling for, you are also struggling for the right to organize and be recognized.” The key issues for the Memphis strikers were their demands that the City of Memphis grant collective bargaining rights and the collection of union dues – the very two items that Gov. Scott Walker targeted in Wisconsin. Like city officials in Memphis, Walker knows that if you can say no to bargaining rights and dues collection, you can kill the union.


The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike was part of the black freedom struggle. Jerry Wurf, national president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), to which the sanitation workers’ Local 1733 belonged, defined Memphis as “a race conflict and a rights conflict” as well as a union conflict. But white municipal workers had also suffered from local government’s hostility to unions. While many of the city’s white craft workers got paid at union scale, they had no contract. And when white firefighters, teachers and police officers tried to organize unions, the city fired and blacklisted them; city officials did not want organized workers exercising any independence or raising the costs of their labor.

Opposition to public-employee unionism was a strong tradition in Memphis. Sounding like Fox News today, City Councilmember Gwen Awsumb warned in 1968 that the “ultimate destruction of the country could come through the municipal unions.”

Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb III came from a family of anti-union employers. Like Gov. Walker and other Republicans today, he held that public employees should not have the right to collectively bargain over their conditions of work, and said he would never sign a union contract. Like Walker, Loeb wanted to cut public jobs to help end an operating deficit: he wanted sanitation workers to do more work for less pay. If they didn’t like it, they could quit.


King’s support for the sanitation workers reflected his long-held concern for economic justice. With some 25 million unemployed and many more underemployed, with 50 million without health insurance and 44 million living in poverty, King’s prophetic words in Memphis ring true today: “Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? And they are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.”


The second phase of the civil rights movement, King said, would have to be the struggle for “economic equality.” To that end, he came to Memphis as part of his Poor People’s Campaign. He sought to organize a mass movement to demand that Congress shift its priorities from funding military buildup and war to funding jobs, housing, health care, and education. The richest country in the history of the world, he said, could easily afford to eliminate poverty. What it lacked was the will to do it.


Racial justice is at issue in today’s attacks on public worker unions. Thanks to the destruction of manufacturing jobs and unions, the one toehold many black and minority workers (and especially women among them) still have in the economy is in unionized public employment. Now, the Republicans want to take that away.

The GOP not only wants to eliminate public employee unions but also to pass “right to work” (for less) laws that take away the requirement that workers in unionized jobs pay union dues or their equivalent. Just as it has done throughout the South, this type of law would undermine unions by starving them of funds, while, in King’s words, providing “no rights and no work.”

In King’s framework, killing public employee unions today would be immoral as well as foolish. He said the three evils facing humankind are war, racism and economic injustice. The purpose of a union is to overcome the latter evil, and without them, unions wages and living conditions will go down for a significant number of workers, especially women and workers of color.



King’s rhetoric spotlights the central question in today’s budget battles: Who should pay? Today’s public employees have won better wages and conditions than those faced by Memphis sanitation workers 43 years ago. But they still live fairly modest lives – and it was not teachers, firefighters or sanitation workers who caused our nation’s economic and fiscal collapse. Why, then, should they be asked to pay for its cost, instead of the private-sector profiteers who created a gambling casino on Wall Street and left the public to pay the bill? Is that economic justice?

King believed that power concedes nothing without a struggle, and for that reason he long supported union organizing. Indeed, he went beyond that to support other forms of direct action that may be increasingly appropriate today as Republicans try to break the last hold of public employees on a living wage.

In Memphis, King called for a general strike in support of the sanitation workers’ demands. “You may have to escalate the struggle a bit,” he told his audience. “If they keep refusing, and they will not recognize the union, and will not agree for the check-off for the collection of dues, I tell you what you ought to do, and you are together here enough to do it: in a few days you ought to get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.”


King’s audience responded with thunderous applause and cheers, because they knew that African Americans did so much of the city’s work. If teachers, sanitation workers, students, and workers across the board went on strike they could definitely shut the city down.

King said, “All labor has dignity.” There is no more important time than the present for us to remember his words and to follow King’s lead in fighting for union rights as human rights. In the wake of the anti-union assault and pro-union protests in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states, let us reflect on where King would have stood in that fight were he alive today.

My bet is that he would be in the streets, fighting for the rights of workers.


Support your union and yourself by coming to bargaining to demand a fair contract. Every Friday in January and Feb 2 at Palmer Commons in Ann Arbor. Feb 9 in Dearborn.

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