Martin Luther King Jr. and the attack on public workers


How ironic. As we celebrate the life and historic contributions of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, public workers are under fierce attack across the country. As the economic crisis worsens for working people there is a coordinated campaign by big business, the newly energized, tea party Republican right, and some Democrats to resolve the crisis on the backs of public workers.

Can you imagine the folks who just got hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax breaks getting indignant at the wages of sanitation workers? What the top 1% of the rich will each get just in tax breaks alone would provide decent, livable wages for several sanitation workers for a whole year. Such bald faced hypocrisy is the currency of these attacks.

Sanitation workers pay is not a gift. The pay and benefits that many local governments are threatening to cut are earned with long hours of backbreaking, stinky work. Oh, the howls from the gated communities if the garbage isn't picked up.

Dr. King was murdered in Memphis, Tenn., as he mobilized support for striking sanitation workers. Forty-three years later these same workers are under attack again. In the past year, Memphis sanitation workers have had to face down threats of privatization and severe job cuts. While across the nation sanitation workers (and fire, police, hospital, rescue, library, school and many other public service workers) pay, pensions and other benefits are on the chopping block in the name of "shared sacrifice."

For those of us who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the memory of those poignant days in 1968 Memphis is especially intense in today's climate of attack on public workers.

Speaking to a rally of striking AFSCME union members, who were mostly African American, in his famous "I've been to the mountaintop" speech, just days before his assassination, Dr. King said, "Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation."

Can there be any doubt that if alive today, Dr. King would be leading the fight to defend all public workers and the fight for jobs. In Memphis, Dr. King brought together two mighty currents of the struggle for economic and social justice. Two deeply kindred currents: labor and civil rights; labor and communities of working people who face racism and discrimination.

And can there be any doubt where he would stand on the issues of the day? For instance so many states are now proposing right-to-work-for-less laws and other measures to deny basic union rights to public service workers. Dr. King famously said, "In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as 'right-to-work.' It provides no 'rights' and no 'works.' Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining... We demand this fraud be stopped."

King would never have allowed anyone to separate the interests of public workers from those who need the public services they provide. And he was keenly aware of the issue of how to finance needed social programs. Most of us vividly remember his statement that "the bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America", and, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

We are inspired and encouraged by Dr. King's example, his work and his words. His words are not meant to comfort us in our efforts, but rather to spur us into greater action. We celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by standing up and fighting for public workers and public services with "greater determination."

Photo: This is a photograph of a famous photograph taken on March 29, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., during the AFSCME sanitation workers strike. Strikers wearing "I AM A MAN" placards march past National Guard troops who had blocked off Beale Street. (kimintn)


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  • Thanks Scott for the excellent article.

    Your comrades from the Memphis CPUSA Club marched in the rain down Beale Street this morning, with perhaps 400 or 500 other folks in the MLK Day parade.

    My brother is a Memphis cop and my mom worked as an elementary school librarian for the Memphis City Schools. Both have been called upon to do a whole lot with little and this for pay and benefits constantly being tweaked or cut or changed in various ways that didn't benefit rank and file public servants.

    The Republican state legislature in TN now has the most dominant majority any party has had since reconstruction, and several of the prominent Republicans in state government have used anti-public worker rhetoric in their campaigns, so things don't look good for public workers in Memphis right now. Next week comrades from the Memphis Club will be attending a living wage vigil for full-time employees of the local University who make so little they quality for food stamps, WIC, etc. To add insult to injury, in April the national Tea Party convention is going to be held here in Memphis. I wonder how many of the Tea Party conventioners will be visiting the National Civil Rights Museum at The Lorraine Hotel during their stay here.

    Greater determination, indeed!

    Posted by Owen White, 01/17/2011 5:00pm (5 years ago)

  • What a great article, Scott! Nell and I just got home from distributing 500 copies of it at the Martin Luther King march in Sacramento, and I could have given away three times as many!

    Posted by Gail Ryall, 01/17/2011 2:59pm (5 years ago)

  • As a recent speech by Honorable Judge Greg Mathis instructed,MLK's first act was to fight for public education in the wake of the Brown decision,his last-to fight for the safety and dignity of public workers.
    We woefully need these two fights today,especially in the climate of the fascistic Tea Party and the likes of Limbaughs,Palins and the financial and energy monopolists.
    We will not have freedom until we have the resources, of energy,transportation and communication at the disposal of the whole working people in public education and jobs to end all poverty.
    MLK supported this,and honoring his work,we would too.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 01/17/2011 1:38pm (5 years ago)

  • Hi Scott, We like the words living wage and for more than a year. I put on my winter jacket this morning and the label said that the jacket was made in Vietnam. I wrote to a profeesor at the Univ. of New Haven which is near the middle school that I taught at. The professor wanted to bring back the draft so that there would be a good mix of people in the military. I reminded him that the label read one nation-Vietnam of which countless Vietnamese were killed and wounded along with 58,000 US military killed. Let the mix take place somewhere other than the battlefied. Peace, gcb

    Posted by gc bannnn, 01/17/2011 1:20pm (5 years ago)

  • Thanks Scott...definitely feel a need for greater action.

    Posted by Cary Feliciano, 01/17/2011 11:38am (5 years ago)

  • This is quiet true. Go to your local library and get out any ML King book specially his last.

    Posted by Beth Edelman, 01/17/2011 11:33am (5 years ago)

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