Fifty years ago today, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down while standing on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
Our nation remembers the heartbreaking assassination, but few know Dr. King took his last breath in the midst of a struggle for the right to belong to a union.
The tragic deaths of two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, brought Dr. King to Memphis. These black men were fatally crushed in the compactor of an obsolete garbage truck where they sought shelter from the rain. Their deaths sparked the walkout of 1,300 fellow sanitation workers.
In 1968, no one needed a union more than sanitation workers who were treated like trash. Racist supervisors told proud black men that they couldn’t use the restroom in their own workplace. They faced starvation wages and deadly working conditions, but still these workers had a dream. They fought for dignity and respect – and their freedom to join together in a strong union.
“All labor has dignity,” Dr. King told a crowd of strikers at the Mason Temple. “You are reminding not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”
Dr. King recognized that civil rights and worker rights are inextricably connected. He discovered that there can be no racial justice without economic justice and no economic justice without racial justice. He wisely noted that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters if people can’t afford the meal. He often said the best anti-poverty program is a union.
Today, with a shrinking middle class and a growing gap between the rich and everyone else, the last thing America needs is an assault on the freedom of working people to form strong unions.
When labor unions do well, everyone does well. When unions are under attack, the result is greater wealth inequality. People concerned about the record level of inequality in the United States need to know about the Janus v. AFSCMESupreme Court case. Janusis the latest attempt to undermine the labor movement in America.
Over the past 50 years, the share of wealth going to workers has dropped, while the share going to wealthy elites is at its highest point ever. Billionaires, like the Koch brothers, try to accelerate that trend. That’s what happened in Wisconsin where Koch-backed Scott Walker and Tea Party Republicans gutted public-sector unions. Teachers, firefighters, sanitation workers and government employees lost their ability to effectively bargain for fair wages and benefits. The results speak for themselves. Wisconsin is in a severe slowdown. Wages for workers in the state are declining.
Now the Republicans are attempting to do what they did to Wisconsin at the federal level in Janus v. AFSCME. This is a case that has been bankrolled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court by Koch-backed groups like the Right-to-Work Foundation. They want the Court to help them with their scheme to bankrupt unions by eliminating the fair-share principle and encouraging workers to forgo paying for union representation. Unions are required to and want to fight for all their workers and the fair share contributions are what allow unions to do that. When a boss mistreats a worker, the union will fight for the worker. That’s what the Koch brothers and their allies don’t want to happen.
Remember the year-long anti-constitutional stonewalling of Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court’s vacant seat? Republicans wanted to stack the Supreme Court bench with right-wing ideologues for cases like Janus– and they did. Soon after President Trump was elected, he filled that seat with the notably anti-union, anti-worker Neil Gorsuch.
Now the billionaires are hoping Justice Gorsuch can swing the court with an anti-worker ruling in the Januscase. Their so-called “right-to-work” laws have their origins in Jim Crow. Dr. King even spoke out against them, saying “We must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as right-to-work. It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.”
It is absolutely imperative at this moment of rising income inequality, when hate and bigotry are gaining a platform in our government, that we reinvigorate the labor movement.
“The labor movement,” Dr. King said, “was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.” That holds true for all American workers today. It’s why we must all fight to keep unions and Dr. King’s dream alive.