He died while fighting for union rights

By Fred Redmond, International Vice President for Human Affairs

Dr. King was murdered on April 4, 1968 in Memphis – 50 years ago today.

Many don’t know that Martin Luther King, Jr. was marching with 1,300 striking Memphis sanitation workers – public employees – so they could form a union.   “Let it be known everywhere,” King said, “that along with wages and all the other securities that you are struggling for, you are also struggling for the right to organize and be recognized.”

The sanitation workers were mostly but not exclusively black.  Before municipal workers were unionized, the poorest paid workers lived in poverty – despite working 60 hour weeks.  Forty percent of the full time Memphis sanitation workers in 1968 were so poorly paid, they qualified for welfare.

Dr. King told the strikers, “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.” 

The central issues for the strikers then – collective bargaining and dues collection -- were the same issues that Governor Scott Walker attacked in Wisconsin, while the collection of dues was the target of Rick Snyder’s attack on unions in Michigan’s schools.  Now with the freeloader-dues dodger case (known as Janus versus AFSCME) before the Supreme Court, extreme conservatives are again trying to prevent workers from collective power.

While Dr. King believed that racism is evil, he also believed that poverty and economic injustice -- regardless of race – had to be tackled at the same time.  He believed that poor and working class white and black American’s would only overcome their plight together.

“We can get more organized that we can apart,” he said.  Dr. King looked for opportunities to build bridges and support unions. He summed up why with this thought, “I never intended to adjust myself to the tragic inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”

The best way to honor his memory would be to rebuild our movement in his spirit.

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