April 3, 2011

“I Am a Man” read the sandwich board posters worn by public sanitation workers in Memphis. Their strike in 1968 came at a time when African American men were still called “boy” to their faces. Their fight for dignity, fair wages and the hope of a better future for their families drew the support of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in that city 43 years ago today.

The critical services that public employees provided in our communities then and now range from the most humble, such as garbage collectors, to the most dangerous (police officers and firefighters) to the most profoundly influential on the lives of our children. 

Yet in state after state, the collective bargaining rights of dedicated teachers and other public employees have been denied or are in serious jeopardy just as they were in the civil rights era. The same politicians pushing these laws are attacking affirmative action, assailing voting rights and pushing laws to block any path to citizenship for millions of hardworking immigrants in this country.

King made clear connections between what he called “our glorious struggle for civil rights” and collective bargaining rights. He called the labor movement “the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress . . . [and] gave birth to . . . new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life.”  

Heirs of King’s legacy who serve our communities see similarities between the struggle in Memphis then and the struggles in Madison and Columbus now.

Dian Palmer, a public health nurse in Milwaukee whose family moved to Wisconsin from Mississippi for better jobs and greater opportunity, starkly remembers the days when her family faced housing discrimination in their new home state because of the color of their skin.  

Palmer is “disgusted” by the ways that what is going on today reminds her of those times. Last month Wisconsin state legislators stripped away collective bargaining rights, wages and benefits from nurses like Palmer, teachers and other public workers and made cavalier comments about how they should all just “get over it,” she says.

Lynn Radcliffe, an administrative assistant in the Cleveland schools’ special education program, testified to Congress last month that today’s public employees are facing the same harsh treatment the Memphis sanitation workers did — “being treated as less than, disrespected and economically deprived of earning a decent wage to take care of their families.”

The powerful business interests that align today against working people hearken back to the “downtown business improvement association” that opposed justice for the striking Memphis sanitation workers. Today’s shadowy 527 groups funded by the Koch brothers and their oil conglomerate — and other bad-actor corporations and executives — would destroy our nation’s last real defense against unrestricted corporate power and Third World wages and working conditions for all. 

The Memphis city workers in 1968 tapped into the spiritual power of our common humanity — a source of power that seems to be gaining traction as people stand up for state and local workers today. A key part of King’s theology was the stranger on the Jericho road, which turned around conventional thinking about uniting with people who we perceive as not being like us.

 We saw this spirit reflected in the tens of thousands of people who rallied in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states to fight for a vibrant middle class for all workers. Protesters from all walks of life accepted King’s challenge: “The question is not, If I stop to help the [sanitation workers], what will happen to me?  The question is, If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” 

In today’s jobless recovery, people of color and women are being hit hard. As public services are cut along with collective bargaining rights, women are disproportionately among those laid off and facing income cuts.  The “underemployment” rate of discouraged and part-time workers is roughly 15 percent for whites but 25 percent for black and Hispanic workers. 

This week, at pulpits, synagogues and other locations nationwide, ordinary people will commemorate King’s death by standing together to tell the powerful interests and the politicians who carry out their wishes that enough is enough.

We are uniting to stand up for the dream of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “a tolerable life.” In today’s terms, that translates as  “a middle class life.” A path into the middle class for millions of Americans — black, white, Latino, Native American and Asian American — is not a dream that we will allow to die.

Benjamin Todd Jealous is president and chief executive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Mary Kay Henry is international president of the Service Employees International Union.