Every year we have a three day holiday in which to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Ceremonies take place all over the country, awards are given, and clips of his famous "I Have a Dream" speech are played on the news. His work as a civil rights leader is lauded. Dr. King's pro-labor stance, and his work to eradicate poverty are seldom, if ever mentioned, even though they were an equally important part of his work.
From The Nation:
King, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning campaigner for economic and social justice whose legacy we celebrate with a holiday that falls on January 17 this year, died while supporting the right of public employees to organize labor unions and to fight for the preservation of public services.
It's especially important now, in this economy, at a time when unions are under attack.
It was to that end that King made his last journey, at the age of 39, to march with and campaign on behalf of members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union in Memphis, Tennessee, in April of 1968.
The sanitation workers of Memphis had experienced not just racial discrimination but the disregard and disrespect that is so often directed at those who perform essential public services.
No one should miss the fact that AFSCME, the union that they joined and the union with which King worked so closely, is now under attack by right-wingers who would have us believe that public workers are to blame for the problems that occur when policymakers blow the budget on tax cuts for the rich, bailouts for big banks and military adventures abroad.
Budgets are balanced on the backs of those least able to afford it, and blame is laid at the feet of those who are least responsible. A number of states have problems with state employee pension systems. It's not the fault of the workers. They weren't administering the system. They didn't invest pension funds in risky investment schemes that lost big money. Dr. King knew that organizing was the most effective way to fight back against the deck that was stacked by those holding the wealth and power. He knew the importance of organized labor.
This AFSCME page has some great quotes from Dr. King speaking at AFL-CIO events. This quote is especially relevant today, when our nation is losing the ground that we gained with Dr. King's help:
At the turn of the century women earned approximately ten cents an hour, and men were fortunate to receive twenty cents an hour. The average work week was sixty to seventy hours. During the thirties, wages were a secondary issue; to have a job at all was the difference between the agony of starvation and a flicker of life. The nation, now so vigorous, reeled and tottered almost to total collapse. The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and above all new wage levels that meant not mere survival, but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over our nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.
Illinois AFL-CIO Convention, October 1965
cross-posted at MainSt/workingamerica.org