It’s 1968 All Over Again, And King’s Fight for Unions is Still Essential

In light of the clash of wills in Wisconsin, we should remember the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One of King’s slogans that we rarely hear is this one: “all labor has dignity.”

King spoke these words in Memphis on March 18, 1968, in the midst of a strike of 1,200 black sanitation workers that had lasted over a month. After rousing them to a fever pitch, King called for a general strike by all workers to shut the city down on behalf of the sanitation workers.

What was the demand of these workers? Improved wages and benefits, yes, but their key demand was that the City of Memphis grant collective bargaining rights and the collection of union dues, without which they knew they could not maintain their union.

These are the very two items that Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker wants to take away from public employees. He knows, as did Mayor Henry Loeb in Memphis, that if you can kill union bargaining rights and dues collection, you can kill the union.

Also like Loeb, Walker is a fiscal conservative. As he cuts taxes for business he raises costs for workers and says ending union power will benefit the fiscal health of the state. Walker wants to end the right of public employees to bargain collectively, even though the workers have accepted a tripling of their health-care costs and a wage cut to help offset the state’s fiscal crisis.

In nearby Ohio, Gov. John Kasich wants to take away the right to join a union for 14,000 state-financed child-care and home-care workers, among the most overworked and underpaid of public servants. In other states, Republicans want to adopt “right to work” (for less) laws that would take away the requirement that workers in unionized jobs pay union dues. This would undermine the unions while, in King’s words, providing “no rights and no work.”

Even in Midwest states that have been union strongholds, Republicans now have public-employee unions in their cross-hairs. This is the latest and potentially most deadly phase of government assault on unions. Ever since the Reagan counterrevolution, government policies joined with private sector profiteers have vastly worsened racial-economic inequalities, created a gambling casino on Wall Street and paved the way for the current economic crisis.

Conservatives rationalize their attacks on unions by saying unionized public workers are unfairly privileged. But they only look privileged by comparison to the rest of the working class, which is suffering economic catastrophe and has almost entirely lost the benefits of unionization. Yet class envy is an easy means to divide and rule.

Racism is another part of the Republican arsenal of divide and rule. Thanks to the destruction of manufacturing jobs and unions, black and Latino workers in manual occupations have disproportionately suffered high rates of poverty and incarceration as many of their families disintegrate. The one toe-hold many black and minority workers (and especially women among them) still have in the economy is in unionized public employment. Now, the Republicans want to take that away.

In one stroke, by eliminating both bargaining rights and union dues, Republicans can ensure that organized, dues-paying workers and particularly minorities and women will no longer provide a potent base for the Democratic Party. There will be few grassroots organizations left to counter the huge infusion of money into politics by the rich.

Workers in Wisconsin have agreed to make sacrifices to get state government out of its budgetary hole. But it would be a huge mistake for anyone to go beyond that and buy into attacks on public employee unions. Loss of unions will further decimate the spending power of working people, thereby intensifying the economic crisis while further removing the voice of workers from politics. That’s a downward spiral.

Republicans most especially want to undermine the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Founded in Wisconsin, AFSCME flowered after King died in the fight for union rights in Memphis in 1968. AFSCME became one of the largest unions in the country, with King regarded as an honorary member and practically a founder of the union.

In King’s framework, killing public employees unions today would be immoral as well as foolish. He said the three evils facing humankind are war, racism and economic injustice, and that the purpose of a union is to overcome the latter evil. King said the civil-rights movement from 1954 to 1965 was “phase one,” to be followed by a second phase—the struggle for economic advancement. We are not doing very well in phase two, and unions remain essential to carry it out.

I’ve recently finished a new collection of King’s remarkable speeches, titled “All Labor Has Dignity,” which shows that throughout his life, King stood up for union rights. There is no more important time than the present for us all to follow his lead.

This post originally appeared on

Photo credit: aflcio via Flickr
by Michael Honey at Colorlines


gerlinde p.
gerlinde p7 years ago

unions are important, support them.

Phil Smith
Phil Smith7 years ago

25 comments in 19 days says this is Not a very hot topic..

Do we have people who are afraid to say what they believe ~ or ~ they believe it wouldn't matter either way.. Well ~ It does matter ~ Just as books do.. Maybe not to everyone ,, But a comment DOES enlighten someone..

Me ,, Yes ,, I am for Unions ~ "BUT" ,, I am also for spending no more than what i have.. I also don't like waste NOR "Not getting what i pay for..

Having buildings not being used (and costing lots of dollars) and people on the payroll not working (still getting paid) and teachers and politicians who were abandoning their duties to the children and to the people they represent because of their own self serving agendas ~ I'm not to happy with..

If you are hired to do a job ~ Do It ,, Or Go Home..

Shelly Peterson
Shelly Peterson7 years ago

Welcome to Planet Earth, 2011! Not only in the USA,( MY country!), but the whole world's economy!
Dr. King::..."...all labor has dignity.....!" ...No dispute from any one with a brain-cell left!..".Truth,in wisdom is eternal!"
The point is, without us people willing to LABOR, there is NO economy! The point is, we whom labor deserve the dignity to do so and to live, and not in fear...PERIOD! We all (most )spend 1/3rd of our lives working,.....1/3 going to & from work and taking care of one"self" and family.....and if you are incredably balanced, in 2011, you sleep 1/3 of every 24 hour period.....tell that to any family member, in any country in 2011, and the normal response will be something liike,..."MY life sucks! "...or more aproprieate verbage!
Please Vote in all of your local, State and National elections, as they all count and they all add-up!
Please consider voting Democratic, to help push our nation progressively forward. Just my opinion. Thankyou!

Ronald N.
Ronald N7 years ago

We should all remember that shortly after the Memphis strike of the sanitation workers, King was murdered. It would be an insult to Americans as well as Dr. King's family that a lone assassin killed Dr. King. We Americans as well as his family know very well that he was the most influentual man who believed in human rights for all. He was a man ahead of his time as he had those who wanted to keep the status quo in check.

What is amazing that since his death, we have only seen the pendulum swing towards the wealth of the corporations and the super-rich and the decimation of the middle class. Obviously corporate wealth and accumulation of wealth came through the obvious productivity of the working class. The high production as well as the destruction of the unions as well as the outsourcing simply decimated the middle class. Unions in the early seventies comprised 50% of the working class, today it is only 15% of the working class. Yet the bad propaganda exists of how "big government" is to blame. No, the corporate system used big government through lobbyists and make sweet deals to deregulate and allow corporate takeovers. It no longer became an issue of any formal correctness, but what was allowed to occur within our recently deregulated system. The "free for all" and predatory practices became the mainstay until the crash and sadly, King's death means nothing to these crooks. If anything Dr. King was a fallen soldier just as JFK and Bobby K.

Geoffrey Y.
Geoffrey Y7 years ago

When it impact to your pocket, thing would become not very objective. Rich or poor will exists forever! Fight for your share of the tax dollar is nothing wrong however this is public property, many none-unions have concerns. Unions should have their share but does not mean other none-unions middle class like union's way today. I don't think the middle class as a whole would like the top % but we should not spread hatreds messages. There are more poor than any union member in this country.

Corina R.
Corina R7 years ago

Anyone who thinks this is just about the unions is either crazy or ignorant (note that I *didn't* use the word "stupid"). Does anyone remember in September and October of last year all the talk about the Republicans wanting to get rid of or lower the current minimum wage? Anyone remember? That's not the unions we're talking about...that's middle class jobs. What makes people think that if, after they bust the unions, they won't be coming for YOUR job next? Do you REALLY believe that the GOP is interested in the everyday, common, working-man taxpayer? Hmmm...if they set the people on each OTHER, they have already divided and conquered, and they get "we the people" to do it FOR them! All that will be left is for them to keep feeding their followers whatever they think they want to hear and keep getting richer. Did anyone see the graph from Mother Jones? Did you look at it? The RICH get RICHER all the time, and who pays for it? Who paid for the billion dollar bailouts? Folks, the surface statement about this being about how wrong unions are and how they're leeching off the middle class is just a cover-up. It's really about class warfare, and the continuation of the Plutocracy that America has become. Remember who is TRULY "leeching off of the middle class" when you hear about the next million dollar bonus for a big corporate CEO.

Karen F.
karen Friedman7 years ago

The Republican agenda is to bust the unions , and create a poor working class not a middle class. If they have their way everyone would earn wages like those in 3rd. world countries.

Alex G.
Alex G7 years ago

He was truly a visionary. RIP Dr. King.

Ernie Miller
william M7 years ago

this is nothing but a power grab by the government for big buisness. and the middle and lower calss people lose.

Dirk De Lu
Dirk De Lu7 years ago

To: Sound Mind, Past Member, Patricia S, Lorreta R and the rest:

A civil society has an obligation to respect and care for the feeble and deranged.

In return they have an obligation to face up to their inadequacy and stop making things worse.

Please crawl back into your holes so we might have a chance of digging out from the decades of right wing atrocities.