MARTIN LUTHER KING:
A CHAMPION OF LABOR
By Dick Meister
"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 Memphis, Tennessee, in the spring of 1968.
They were striking union members, sanitation workers demanding that the
city of Memphis formally recognize their union and thus grant them a voice in
determining their wages, hours and working conditions. 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
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 as he was preparing to lead strikers in yet another demonstration.
There are of course many reasons for honoring him on Martin Luther King
Day Jan. 15. But don't forget that one of the most important reasons, one
that's often overlooked, is 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 Memphis. As a consequence, they soon were granted the
union rights they had demanded.
For the first time, the workers' own representatives could sit across a
table from their bosses and negotiate. They got their first paid holidays
and vacations. They got substantial raises in wages that had been so low
40 percent of them 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 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 Memphis."
The strikers' victory in Memphis led quickly to union recognition
victories by black and white public employees throughout the South and elsewhere.
They had passed a major test of union endurance against very heavy odds,
prompting a great upsurge of union organizing and militancy among
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
Jr.: "Our needs are identical with labor's needs: Decent wages, fair
working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare
measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their
children, and respect in the community."
Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco, has covered labor
issues for four decades as a newspaper and broadcast reporter, editor and
commentator. Copyright c 2001 Dick Meister.