Martin Luther King Jr. and the attack on public workers

by: Scott Marshall
January 17 2011

tags: public workers, racism, unions, strikes

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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