MLK and the labor movement

By Dick Meister, San Francisco Examiner, 21 February 2003

THE MARTIN LUTHER King Jr. Day celebrations this month included little mention of some of Dr. King's most important work—that done on behalf of the labor movement.

Our needs, he said, are identical with labor's needs—decent wages and working conditions, healthcare, education and housing, old-age security and respect in the community.

King was assassinated in 1968, remember, while preparing for another of the many daily marches he led in support of striking sanitation workers who were demanding that the city of Memphis, Tenn., formally recognize their union and thus give them a voice in determining their terms of employment.

The strikers, who had very few resources, nevertheless had held out for 65 days—largely because of what one of their leaders noted as the surge of confidence King inspired in them.

His assassination brought tremendous pressure on city officials, and they soon met the strikers' demand for union rights. It was a great victory for the 1,300 sanitation workers and for the labor and civil rights movements.

For the first time, the workers' own representatives could sit across a table from their bosses and negotiate. They got their first paid holidays and vacations. They got substantial raises in wages that had been so low 40 percent of them qualified for welfare payments.

They got agreement that promotions would be made strictly on the basis of seniority, without regard to race. That assured the promotion of African Americans to supervisory positions for the first time. The strikers, in fact, won just about everything they had demanded.

Their victory in Memphis led quickly to union recognition victories by black and white public employees throughout the South and elsewhere. They had passed a major test of union endurance against very heavy odds, prompting a great upsurge of union organizing and militancy among government workers.

As a strike leader said, the strikers had sought—and won—dignity, equity and access to power and responsibility.

Those clearly were the lifelong goals of Martin Luther King Jr., whether he was seeking civil rights for African Americans or labor rights for all Americans, black and white alike.