“History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.” Dr Martin Luther King Jr
In our current time of great struggle we should look back at history to see how far we have come as humans, as Americans, and as labor unions. This weekend we will celebrate the birth of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, a man who moved a nation.
While most people remember Dr King as the great human and civil right advocate, many also remember the impact he made on the labor movement. The two may seem very different, they are in fact the same. Dr King realized that both labor unions and civil rights advocates were fighting for the same thing. Fair and livable wages for all. So together Dr King, and unions like AFSCME, came together to help each other. This was evident in the Sanitization Workers Strike in Memphis in 1968. The strike took on more than just labor issues, it became a symbol of the civil rights movement. Dr. King lead over 20,000 people through the streets of Memphis in solidarity of the AFSCME Strikers.
You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth. AFSCME Memphis Sanitation Strike, April 3, 1968
The next day, April 4th 1968, Dr King was assassinated in on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
On 8 April, an estimated 42,000 people led by Coretta Scott King, SCLC, and union leaders silently marched through Memphis in honor of King, demanding that Loeb give in to the union’s requests. In front of the City Hall, AFSCME pledged to support the workers until “we have justice” (Honey, 480). Negotiators finally reached a deal on 16 April, allowing the City Council to recognize the union and guaranteeing a better wage. While the deal brought the strike to an end, the union had to threaten another strike several months later to press the city to follow through with its commitment. (1)
The demands of the AFSCME Workers in 1968 were not that different that what we ask for today. We want a fair and livable wage, security and safety in our jobs, and the right to negotiate with our employers. Today we remember the Man, the Labor Leader, the Civil Rights Advocate…. Dr. Martin Luther King JR.