Martin Luther King, Jr. and Municipal Workers

mlk in memphisMartin Luther King, Jr. gave his life fighting for the collective bargaining rights of municipal workers in the city of Memphis. The garbage collectors who were striking were responding to unsafe conditions (a worker was crushed by a truck), a sub-minimum wage, non-existent benefits, zero bargaining rights. Mayor Henry Loeb beat the workers down just as Governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, and Chris Christie in New Jersey are trying to do right now to state workers. “I AM A MAN” read the signs the African-American garbage collectors held as they marched in non-violent protest against their obscenely exploitative working conditions. Their identities and self-worth, like all of us, was intimately tied to what they did in their working lives to earn their daily bread. Right-wing elected officials were seeking to keep those municipal workers in a state of second-class citizenship and Dr. King went to Memphis to stand up to them.

I cannot believe that in the 21st Century we are having this kind of a debate on the role of labor unions in this country. But I suppose it isn’t surprising since we have a new Gilded Age going on, with a new cast of Robber Barons like Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and the Koch brothers, who once again have little puppet governors in their hip pockets. What’s next? Pinkertons shooting into crowds? Goons? Spies?

Today, a loud minority of private sector workers, swimming in a sea of classist propaganda, apparently want public sector workers (who are in the main paid less) to be pulled down to the kind of shoddy benefits packages and lack of bargaining rights they are forced to endure instead of asking the deeper question: Why is it that their private sector benefits are so lacking? The simple answer is that over the past thirty years private sector unions have been decimated, leaving millions of workers with no voice and no choice but to accept any abuse capital wishes to dish out.

The working-class people who are now siding with their bosses against their public sector neighbors might never see the light. The manufacturing of consent on this issue that inundates us with the rich man’s view of the world — be it from Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or Glenn Beck (for the high school diploma crowd) or from David Brooks, Morton Zuckerman, or Rick Santelli (for the college diploma crowd) — has enabled the elites to achieve what the old Gilded Age Robber Baron, Jay Gould, accomplished more heavy-handedly when he boasted: “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”

The Gilded Age union busting that is now happening in Wisconsin and spreading to other states must be fought to the bitter end. What we’re seeing in Wisconsin is a make-or-break sit-down strike by courageous public sector workers and their allies in the Democratic Party. We need more of these around the country. For if this country continues regressing at this pace we’ll soon be debating the merits of women voting or whether African Americans are 3/5ths of a human being.

Martin Luther King, Jr. knew what side he was on. In what turned out to be his last speech, he pointed out that the press “very seldom get[s] around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers were on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them.” He went on:

joseph palermoAll we say to America is, “Be true to what you said on paper.” If I lived in… any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right!

King also recognized that in the epic battle for workers’ rights we must be steadfast:

[W]e’ve got give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point . . . We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.

Joseph Palermo

Joseph A Palermo

Published by the LA Progressive on February 26, 2011
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).