MLK Was A True Working-Class Hero
"I AM A MAN," the signs proclaimed in large, bold letters. They were held high, proudly and defiantly, by African-American men marching through the streets of
The marchers were striking union members, sanitation workers demanding that the city of
Hundreds of supporters joined their daily marches, most notably Martin Luther King Jr. He had been with the 1,300 strikers from the very beginning of their bitter struggle. He had come to
The struggles of workers for union rights often are considered to be of no great importance. Dr. King knew better. He knew that the right to unionization is one of the most important of civil rights. Virtually his last act was in support of that right, for he was killed by an assassin's bullet on April 4, 1968 as he was preparing to lead strikers in yet another demonstration.
There are, of course, many reasons for honoring him on Martin Luther King Jr. Day Jan. 21. But we shouldn't forget that one of the most important reasons, one that's often overlooked, is Dr. King's championing of the cause of the Memphis strikers and others who sought union recognition.
His assassination brought tremendous public pressure to bear in behalf of the strikers in
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 in wages that had been so low - about $1.70 an hour - that 40 percent of the workers had qualified for welfare payments.
They got 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... the surge of confidence he inspired in the movement in
The strikers' victory in
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 were -- and are -- intertwined in that effort need only heed the words of Martin Luther King
"Our needs are identical with labor's needs: Decent wages, fair working conditions, liveable 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
Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor issues for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com