What Would MLK Add to the Debate about Public Employees?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking to AFSCME in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 18, 1968

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 ShowMichael 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.


More in:

Comments [15]

Rebecca Elder from California

Thank you very much for sharing this interview with Honey and for bringing us some of MLK's monumental speeches about the dignity of labor. This story couldn't be more important for what our country is dealing with now in regard to severe financial inequity and inappropriate tea party attempts to quash labor unions. I support laborers in Wisconsin and throughout the world.

Mar. 02 2011 12:29 PM
Peter from Queens

Thanks Brian so much for this segment. Whenever there is another chance to hear Dr. King's magnificent voice, the clarity and depth of his compassion and commitment to speaking the truth for the upliftment of humanity only reminds one of what a great human being he was. I think Tavis Smiley may be right in thinking that MLK was the greatest American this country has yet seen.

In any case, Dr. King was a Great Bodhisattva.

Jan. 14 2011 01:48 PM
Fafa from Harlem

Again, John, people (or a people) must save themselves. About this there is no dispute.
For you, the question is -- do you even fully understand "the hand" that has been dealt? Do you have as much criticism for those who have benefited from the social exclusion of others - who gained immediate socioeconomic advantage from it in an unfree market, that they could pass on to their progeny - as you have for the excluded and their progeny? I bet you, like most folks, don't. This is also an autocatalytic effect...

Jan. 14 2011 12:04 PM
Anne from Brooklyn

I went to the Living Wages mass meeting too-- it was incredible and inspiring. It was to urge the passage of the Fair Wages law to be passed in NYC, and was in honor of this very mass meeting of Martin Luther King Jr. standing with exploited sanitation workers in Memphis.

This bill would demand a living wage ($10/hr) to people who take jobs at new developments which are receiving an extraordinary amount in tax payer subsidies-- as Comptroller John Liu said last night, the number of jobs created by these developments are steadily declining as the amount of subsidies granted developers increase. I know this show is talking about public employees, but this is a bill to stop the exploitation of the working poor in NYC who work in the private sector. Bloomberg compared the bill to communism in a NYT article and has said it would scare away developers and the national chain stores they house. This argument is old and tired and has been used before to stop abuses the country now sees as amoral; it is highly unlikely it will promote communism and scare away development, and it keeps people poor, actually taking the taxes from their wages to bring in more low wage jobs.

Jan. 14 2011 12:00 PM
Michael Beck from Woodside, NY

Michael Honey didn't mention that the 'America going to hell' reference in King's speech was echoed in Rev. Wright's speech, which was vilified in the press and contributed to Obama distancing himself from Wright.

Jan. 14 2011 11:55 AM
Ed from Larchmont

The reason you don't hear more preaching about the poor is that much of the time and energy is taken up preaching against abortion. The unborn child is the neediest person, under attack, and this problem has taken the first place. But there is a long history of social economic justice which is also being worked on.

Jan. 14 2011 11:54 AM
john from office

Fafa, I dont find joy in my comments. But, when do you accept the hand dealt to you and pick yourselves up. The "community" is suicidal.

Jan. 14 2011 11:53 AM
luana from Brooklyn

my cousin is a sani worker in Nassau, with overtime he routinely makes well over 100k. Starting salaries are meaningless as well, there are lots of ways to bulk up ones salary.

Jan. 14 2011 11:50 AM
Fafa from Harlem

JOHN, you mistaken effects for causes -- effects that must be addressed from within (because that's the only way they will be), but that are never the less direct results of the short-circuiting of MLK's economic justice campaign and others like it. Today, black people are still disporportionately poor and susceptible to poverty and to its autocatalytic secondary and tertiary effects (like some of the realities you criticize). And there is a direct connection between this status quo and the intergenerational effects of slavery and socioeconomic terror, and the failures of the first and second Reconstructions. And King knew this. Too bad most people still don't. Our sociological and historical ignorance is apalling.

Jan. 14 2011 11:48 AM
Amy from Manhattan

I was at a Mass Meeting for Living Wages (info at at Convent Avenue Baptist Church last night. Many of the speakers quoted Dr. King & talked about his work on this issue.

Jan. 14 2011 11:42 AM
john from office

What a great speaker. We need another true leader like this.

Jan. 14 2011 11:40 AM

"The current starting salary of a Sanitation Worker is $31,200 per year. The current labor agreement provides for periodic increases to a maximum of $67,141 after 5 1/2 years."

Jan. 14 2011 11:39 AM
luanda from Brooklyn

This is a different time, Sanitation workers have better wages (many making well over 100k) and benefits than the average citizen.

Jan. 14 2011 11:37 AM

Foodstamps are not enough. I'm pushing 60 and can't get a job. Have an ivy league degree. What do I do?

Jan. 14 2011 11:33 AM
John from office.

What would Dr. King say about the state of the black community in 2011.

1) you have an anti intellectual attitude in the community.

2) you have fashions that only serve to further racist images and attitudes. The whole open sneaker, baggy pants look. Where the underwear is shown and the rearend is out. Compare that image to the many pictures of well dressed marchers in the 50's and sixties.

3) you have a failure of the community to police itself and expect order to come from the outside. The black family is in shambles.

4) and, the cause of integration has resulted in terrible schools, that no white or well educated minority will send their children to.

Is this what Dr. King died for?? Gangster rap, Lil Wayne??, the N word used constantly.

Did he die for the black community to be lead by hucksters like Al Sharpton or Jesse "bloody shirt" Jackson. No he did not.

He would be ashamed of the resulting "community". And, no it is not the fault of whites or racism, it is an internal problem and can only be resolved internally.

Jan. 14 2011 09:39 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


About It's A Free Country ®

Archive of It's A Free Country articles and posts. Visit the It's A Free Country Home Page for lots more.

Supported by

WNYC is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation: Because a great city needs an informed and engaged public.  Learn more at


Supported by