On the evening of April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down by an assassin’s bullet.
This year marked the 50th anniversary of that event, so extra attention was paid to King’s life’s work and contribution to the civil rights movement in America. King was also celebrated for his influence in establishing antidiscrimination laws in many parts of the world.
But often overlooked is King’s involvement with the labour movement, which was a substantial part of his activism. King travelled to Memphis in 1968 to address the striking sanitation workers of that city. The 1,300 workers had been off the job since February of that year. They were demanding better wages, union security, and safer equipment. Two workers had died earlier in the year because of a faulty compactor on a waste collection truck.
For King, civil rights activists and labour activists were partners in the fight for economic justice. In the ’50s and early ’60s, King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), relied on unions such as District 65 of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union (RWDSU) for financial support. He also worked closely with the RWDSU and the Black Porters Union because their members were African Americans who experienced segregation and racially charged discrimination every day.
In All Labor Has Dignity, a collection of 11 of King’s speeches to different labour organizations, editor Michael K. Honey suggests King was an advocate for the right of workers to come together to join unions of their free choosing—without intimidation or harassment. Honey credits King with averting the introduction of right-to-work laws, which undermine the union movement, in Oklahoma because he dared to point out that such legislation “provides ‘no rights’ and ‘no work.’ ”
In his speeches to labour unions, King identified parallels between the civil rights and labour movements in trying to establish justice for the impoverished and oppressed. But despite the fraternity between his SCLC and the labour movement, he never shied from condemning his allies for the segregationist and racially discriminatory practices within their own organizations.
King also used his powerful gift of speech to convincingly and winsomely challenge labour representatives into action. “I call upon labor as the historic ally of the underprivileged and oppressed to join with us in this present struggle to redeem the soul of the country and to revitalize the life of the poor and downtrodden,” he said in a 1967 speech to the AFL – CIO’s Illinois state convention.
After helping to bring an end to segregation in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, King and the SCLC began to focus more acutely on the issue of economic justice. For King, the success in ending segregation was only a first installment toward the vision that he orated in his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. In a speech to the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees in 1968, he asked, “What does it profit a man to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”
In his final years, King travelled the country tirelessly, pointing out that true economic justice demanded fair and reasonable access to jobs, healthcare, education, housing, and a hand up for those on the bottom of society. He advocated for an economic bill of rights for the underprivileged and called for a basic guaranteed income to address the poverty experienced by the working poor—people like the sanitation workers in Memphis who held full-time jobs yet still didn’t earn enough to provide for their families’ most basic needs.
Honey attributes King’s inexhaustible energy for the underdog to two features in his life: his own humble middle-class beginnings as the grandson of slaves and share croppers and the black social gospel tradition that he grew up in and dedicated his life to. His belief in a just God who creates all people as equal served to orient his life and his unyielding desire to see inequality and poverty defeated.
“Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, it has dignity and it has worth,” he said to the distraught and tired group of striking sanitation workers in Memphis. “One day, our society will come to respect the sanitation worker. For the person who picks up the garbage . . . is as significant as the physician. All labor has dignity.”
On Monday, we celebrate Labour Day, a day to reflect on our work, a day to reflect on the contribution that unions have made to enrich our common life together. As King demonstrated 50 years ago, sometimes workers must stand together to ensure that prosperity is fairly shared. And, like King, we also need to stand together to make clear that all work, and all workers—including the construction labourer, the garbage collector, the dietary aide, and the truck driver—are dignified and entitled to dignity and respect for their service to society in the work that they do every day.