January 20, 2011
MLK was a working-class hero
From People's World
"I AM A MAN," the signs proclaimed in large, bold letters. They were held high, proudly and defiantly, by African-American men marching through the streets of Memphis, Tennessee, in the spring of 1968 .
The marchers were striking union members, sanitation workers demanding that the city of Memphis formally recognize their union and thus grant them a voice in determining their wages, hours and working conditions .
Hundreds of supporters joined their daily marches, most notably Martin Luther King Jr. He had been with the 1,300 strikers from the very beginning of their bitter struggle. He had come to Memphis to support them despite threats that he might be killed if he did The struggles of workers for union rights often are considered to be of no great importance. Dr. King knew better. He knew that the right to unionization is one of the most important of civil rights. Virtually his last act was in support of that right, for he was killed by an assassin's bullet on April 4, 1968 as he was preparing to lead strikers in yet another demonstration .
There are, of course, many reasons for honoring him on Martin Luther King Jr. Day Jan. 18. But we shouldn't forget that one of the most important reasons, one that's often overlooked, is Dr. King's championing of the cause of the Memphis strikers and others who sought union recognition .
His assassination brought tremendous public pressure to bear in behalf of the strikers in Memphis. President Lyndon Johnson sent in federal troops to protect them and assigned the Under Secretary of Labor to mediate the dispute. Within two weeks, an agreement was reached that granted strikers the union rights they had demanded .
For the first time, the workers' own representatives could sit across the table from their bosses and negotiate and air their grievances and demands for remedies. They got their first paid holidays and vacations, pensions and health care benefits. They got the right to overtime pay and raises of 38 percent in wages that had been so low ¬ about $1.70 an hour ¬ that 40 percent of the workers had qualified for welfare payments .
They got agreement that promotions would be made strictly on the basis of seniority, without regard to race, assuring the promotion of African Americans to supervisory positions for the first time. The strikers, in fact, got just about everything they had sought during the 65-day walkout .
William Lucy, secretary-treasurer of the strikers' union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, saw Dr. King ³bring tears to the eyes of strikers and their families just by walking into a meeting ... the surge of confidence he inspired in the movement in Memphis." The strikers' 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 Lucy said, it was "a movement for dignity, for equity, and for access to power and responsibility for all Americans." Anyone doubting that the labor and civil rights movements share those goals need only heed the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: "Our needs are identical with labor's needs: Decent wages, fair working conditions, liveable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community.... The coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the blacks and forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor issues for a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com
Rebel Youth is looking for hitchhiking stories, and also experiences with the challenges faced by women, trans people, hitchhickers facing ...
The real abuse taking place in Cuba is the crippling and inhumane American blockade Rob Miller The Guardian, Thursday 26 November 2009 Yo...
J. Boyden Yesterday, January 18 th , was the 24 th anniversary of the death of Renato Guttuso. Renato Guttuso (1911-1987) was a com...
Jay Watts In 1995, a report issued as part of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples called suicide “one of the most urgent problems ...
World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY) would like to express its deepest condolences and sympathy to all those affected by the mu...
This article is part of an seven-part series of short quotes Rebel Youth is issuing about class struggle, revolution, civil-war, and par...
A very important meeting for labour and social movements is taking place from August 21-24th in Ottawa. The People’s Social Forum (PS...
Rebel Youth presents an interview with University of British Columbia student activist Kelly Gerlings Interview by Rozhin Emadi RY:...
Ajit Singh A couple weeks ago, a Palestinian child was beheaded by the "moderate rebels" in Syria, created, funded, and backe...
Drew Garvie The Trudeau government has been elected at a time of economic crisis globally, where capital internationally is on the of...