What Would MLK Add to the Debate about Public Employees?

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's a Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Michael Honey, former Southern civil rights organizer and professor of labor and ethnic history at the University of Washington-Tacoma, discussed Martin Luther King Jr.'s economic justice legacy.

In the winter of 1968, dangerous labor conditions and inadequate benefits resulted in a sanitation workers' strike in Memphis, Tennessee. The strike drew the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was increasingly focused on economic justice issues with the Poor People's Campaign he organized with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 

In Memphis, King gave his famous I've Been to the Mountaintop speech on the day before he was killed on April 4, 1968. Two weeks before that, King delivered a less well-known speech in Memphis about workers' rights and labor unions.

Michael Honey includes that speech in a new collection of King's orations entitled All Labor Has Dignity. According to Honey, what made this speech and this strike different from others is the way it framed the conversation about labor in America.

The thing that sort of set it apart from most strikes was the sign the men made themselves, and it said "I am a man." That meant this was about human rights, being respected as person, not only about wages, benefits, the kind of things you try to get when you form a union.

The compensation and the working conditions in this case were indicators of the country's respect and valuation of these individuals, or lack thereof. For the sanitation workers, it wasn't simply about getting more money; it was about being appreciated as contributing, integral members of society. Brian Lehrer played the following clip from King's speech, in which the King illustrates this point with a phrase that would become the title of Honey's collection.

So often, we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs. Of those who are not in the so-called "big jobs." But let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth...All labor has dignity.

King wanted to draw our government's attention to these people, the undignified laborers. But his interest in workers' rights was also calculated, according to Honey.

King had strong relations with all sorts of unions going back to the Montgomery bus boycott...What he was trying to do was bring together a coalition of labor, civil rights, anti-war, the new left, and all the church, all the people trying to reform society in a different direction. Labor was fundamental to that, but the AFL-CIO was tied to the Vietnam War, and that caused a huge fracture. His constituency was these unions with these kinds of workers. When we think about king we don't usually think about labor, but it's a major part of his story.

King didn't just court labor because it was advantageous to his cause, though. In many ways, labor struggles were directly in line with King's grand social philosophy: equal treatment under the law for all citizens. Honey said that while King couldn't have foreseen our current struggles with pension systems and state budget deficits, we'd do well to remember his message that this debate is about much more than money.

The inequalities of wealth are staggering, and the attacks against unions, the last bastion of which is public employees, is escalating. Now's the time to bring in King's rhetoric to help us. We're in a big fight here.