"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, 40 years ago. It was in
the spring of 1968.
The marchers 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
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 bitter struggle. He had come to Memphis to support them
despite threats that he might be killed if he did.
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 on April 4, 1968 as he was preparing to lead strikers in yet another
There are, of course, many reasons for honoring him on
Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But we shouldn't forget that one of the most
important reasons, one that's often overlooked, is Dr. 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. President Lyndon Johnson sent in
federal troops to protect them and assigned the Under Secretary of Labor to
mediate the dispute. Within two weeks, an agreement was reached that granted
strikers the union rights they had demanded.
For the first time, the workers' own representatives
could sit across the table from their bosses and negotiate and air their
grievances and demands for remedies. They got their first paid holidays and
vacations, pensions and health care benefits. They got the right to overtime
pay and raises of 38 percent in wages that had been so low - about $1.70 an
hour - that 40 percent of the workers 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 Dr. 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
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
share those goals need only heed the words of Martin Luther King Jr.:
"Our needs are identical with labor's needs: Decent
wages, fair working conditions, liveable housing, old-age security, health and
welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for
their children, and respect in the community....
"The coalition that can have the greatest impact in
the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the blacks and forces
of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined."
Copyright (c) 2008 Dick Meister