Monday, January 17, 2011

Dr. Martin Luther King died fighting for public employees

As we celebrate Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., it is important to remember that Dr. King viewed ther right to organize as one of the nation's most important civil rights. Virtually his last act was in support of that right, for he was killed on April 4, 1968 as he prepared to lead striking Memphis garbarge workers on another march for union recognition.

King's assassination brought to bear tremendous public pressure on behalf of the strikers in Memphis.

Dick Meister writes; President Lyndon Johnson sent in federal troops to protect them and assigned the undersecretary 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 on wages that had been so low - about $1.70 an hour - that 40 percent of the workers had qualified for welfare payments.

They got an 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 "bring tears to the eyes of strikers and their families just by walking into a meeting" and "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, livable 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.

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