Op-Ed: MLK’s Fight for Workers’ Rights Must Endure

On the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, gives an eloquent reminder about Dr. King’s legacy of standing up for workers’ rights and the relevance of this struggle today:

In 1968, sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee carried picket signs with four simple but powerful words: “I AM A Man.” These workers — African-American men in a segregated city — held some of the most grueling, under-appreciated but essential jobs in our society: collecting their fellow citizens’ garbage. On February 12, more than 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers went on strike for fair wages, reliable work schedules, safe working conditions, recognition of their union (AFSCME Local 1733), and, most important of all, recognition of their human dignity.

On April 4, while visiting Memphis in support of the strike, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. On the eve of his death, he gave his famous “I have been to the mountaintop” speech, in which he declared: “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” On April 16, the city government of Memphis agreed to recognize the union and to begin to improve the sanitation workers’ wages, benefits and working conditions.

Now, more than four decades later, the same rights for which the sanitation workers struck and for which Dr. King gave his life are under attack in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and other states across this country. The right to join and organize unions and bargain for better wages, benefits, and conditions are rooted in the spirit of the Constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom to petition for the redress of grievances. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt and adopted in 1948, elegantly declares that every person “has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” For more than 75 years, the National Labor Relations Act has guaranteed the right to collective bargaining for most private sector workers, while dozens of states have enacted laws or issued executive orders providing this right for public employees.

But, still, some governors are using their states’ budget problems as an excuse to eliminate these fundamental rights, as if we could put a price tag on human dignity. Proving that not all governors fit the definition of cynicism — knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing — California, New York, Illinois, and other major states are resolving their budget issues by working with public employees and their unions.

Beginning with worship services over the April 1 weekend, and continuing through the week of April 4, civil and human rights activists will be working with union members, people of faith, students, and other progressives on a range of community- and workplace-focused actions. Under the banner of “We are One,” we will be defending the rights of public sector and private sector workers to organize and bargain for a better life.

This won’t be the first or last time that civil and human rights advocates have worked together with the labor movement. A. Philip Randolph, who organized the first predominantly African-American union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was also a founder of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the prime mover behind the historic March on Washington in 1963 at which Dr. King proclaimed his dream. Indeed, this event was entitled the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

For seven decades or more, collective bargaining has brought Americans from every background closer to the “promised land” of economic security and upward mobility. Through collective bargaining, many who have been deprived of the fullness of American life, including African Americans, women, Latinos, and the White working class, have gained greater access to jobs, education, housing, health care, and financial security. Union advocacy for minimum occupational health and safety standards, a 40-hour work week, family and medical leave, and the minimum wage has raised living standards for union and non-union workers alike.

If Dr. King were with us today, he would be marching against injustice in Madison in 2011, just as he marched against injustice in Memphis in 1968. Join us on April 4 to continue the journey toward justice. Now, as then, “We are One.”