“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, 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 conditions.
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 are often considered to be of no great importance. Dr. King knew better. He knew that the right to unionization is one of the most important 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 demonstration.
There are, of course, many other reasons for honoring him on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 17, 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 to bear tremendous public pressure on behalf of the strikers in Memphis. President Lyndon Johnson sent in federal troops to protect them and assigned the undersecretary 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 on wages that had been so low – about $1.70 an hour – that 40 percent of the workers had qualified for welfare payments.
They got an 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” and “the surge of confidence he inspired in the movement in Memphis.”
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 government workers.
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, livable 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.