Workfare and Dr. King
Workers World, Editorial, 23 January 1997
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Just to mention his name is to recall the heroic and massive civil-rights movement. The fight of Black America for equality under the law. The struggle to move forward from the back of the bus. He is now the first African American to have a national holiday in his honor, another victory that was won through struggle.
But Dr. King was not simply an icon. As a Black leader he was always the target of racists, from Nazis in Cicero, Ill., to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. And as a leader, King was constantly changing and developing.
In the year before he was assassinated, Dr. King had begun to move in a direction the ruling class hated. After years of caution regarding the U.S. war against Vietnam, he came out strongly against it in the spring of 1967. His project for 1968 was to be a "Poor People's March," a caravan of the country's poor to Washington to demand relief. And on the day of his murder in April 1968 he was supporting striking Memphis sanitation workers.
To go in this direction meant to join the civil-rights and anti-war movements with the struggles of the working class, especially the lowest-paid workers. His fight was no longer just for equality under the law, but for economic equality, and it meant solidarity with the poor all over the world. His last expression of that fight was to stand with 1,300 low-paid Memphis, Tenn., sanitation workers in their strike.
In 1968 the wages of the lowest-paid workers were rising. Today they are again under the most severe attack. The ruling class has found a way to hire workers at lower than the lowest minimums in a new relationship that tastes of slavery. It's called workfare.
It wears the phony disguise of welfare reform. It's supposed to train people to get jobs. But it actually forces welfare recipients to work simply to receive their inadequate welfare benefits. It rests on a foundation of racist rhetoric against the poor and oppressed. It forces these workers to toil in jobs otherwise held by workers who get a living wage and union representation--and thereby threatens union rights and overall wage rates.
Workfare workers' struggles are a worthy successor to Dr. King's final battle in Memphis. A victory for the most oppressed sector of the working class is a victory for all workers and oppressed people. This, ultimately, is the lesson of the movement Dr. King led.
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