Dr. King showed worker rights are civil rights

The following is excerpted from the remarks of Roger Toussaint, president of New York City’s Transport Workers Union Local 100, on the occasion of its Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemoration, Jan. 15.

Today is a special celebration for Local 100, the federal holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

For us, today is the answer to the question that people in Montgomery, Ala., posed to Dr. King in 1965: How long? He told them the road is long and hard. But it takes you where we have to go. Just months later, Congress passed the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Today, New York City Transit rejoins the United States of America. Today, Dr. King’s birthday is a holiday in transit. Transit waited 23 years after Reagan signed it into federal law. Transit waited six years after every one of the 50 states made it a holiday. Transit even waited a year after the last county in America, Greenville County, S.C., made it a holiday.

How long? Too long. But we finally did it.

Does history matter?

Dr. King knew that just because you were born Black, you didn’t automatically know about a history of struggle. You had to learn it.

We have all seen that just because you joined Local 100, that doesn’t automatically mean you know about the history of struggle of our union. You have to learn it. The future of our union depends on it.

Would we be celebrating Dr. King if he was not killed in 1968? But Memphis happened. King’s death is etched in our memory. And that is where I would like to begin.

Memphis showed the intersection of civil rights and workers’ rights. Dr. King was in Memphis in early 1968 because of a strike by African American workers. These public workers took care of Memphis’ garbage. And in return, Memphis treated them like garbage. Their wages were atrocious. There were no benefits, no vacation and no pension.

On Jan. 31, 1968, it rained. Black sewer workers were sent home without pay. The next day, Feb. 1, the cold rain continued. There were no indoor facilities for Black sanitation workers. Two of them sat inside the back of a garbage truck to stay dry. Old and poorly maintained, an electrical short in its wiring caused the compressor to start running. Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death. Ten days later the union held a mass meeting, where the members voted to strike. The slogan of the Memphis strike was a simple one. The slogan was: “I am a man.” The Memphis strike was a strike for dignity — dignity as African Americans and dignity as workers.

Dr. King understood the close connection between the African American struggle and the struggle of labor. “Negroes are almost entirely a working people,” he said. “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs.” The mayor of Memphis told one and all that the strike was “illegal.” I don’t know if he called the strikers “thugs,” but he might have.

Dr. King had close ties with our union. To me, this is not a theme that grows old. [TWU founding president] Mike Quill and Dr. King were drawn together naturally, two fighters for dignity for all who labor, two fighters against any form of discrimination.

That’s not history. It’s our lifeblood, our inheritance. It made us what we are.

A time to break silence on Iraq

Tonight we distributed Dr. King’s address on the Vietnam War. Forty years ago, America was at war in Vietnam. At home, African Americans were also in battle against the last vestiges of legal segregation in the South and against discrimination everywhere. This was the backdrop for Dr. King’s speech just a few miles from here, at Riverside Church.

He had to wrestle with a serious moral and political issue. Opposition to discrimination was a broadly held sentiment. In 1967, opposition to the war in Vietnam was nowhere near as broad among the political establishment or within the faith community. Dr. King was under great pressure to tone down his antiwar statements, similar to the pressure to stop confronting legal segregation in Birmingham, Ala., a few years earlier. His answer then was the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In 1967, it was “Beyond Vietnam, A Time to Break Silence.”

Permit me a brief reflection on how to handle challenges. I think this is one of the key lessons to be learned from the life of Dr. King.

In Birmingham, King was challenged: retreat or advance. King pushed ahead.

In 1967, King was challenged on the war. He pushed ahead.

I think our union is being challenged as well. Our [December 2005] strike pushed the envelope for New York City unions, and maybe even beyond. There were those who counseled retreat. There were those who counseled repudiating December and those who led you onto the battlefield. But we had to face the challenge, even in the face of fines and threats and jails. I am proud that we did.

I don’t think the challenges are past. Each of us will be judged on how we answer, just as Dr. King was.

King did not live to see the end of the war in Vietnam. Just one year later he would be murdered in Memphis. Dr. King’s remarks should call each of us to break our silence on the war in Iraq.

George Bush calls for a “surge” in Iraq. It will be a surge in death. A surge in suffering. A surge in public money wasted and lives destroyed. Dr. King’s analysis of Vietnam rings true today. We do not belong in Iraq. We need a surge in opposition to the war. That is the way to honor Dr. King.

History still to be written

In a world where our own government often seems to have lost sight of reason and of the opinions of most of humankind, we need to keep the dream alive. In a world where enormous pressure is threatening to erode the achievements of Dr. King’s generation and of the prior generation that built the labor movement in the United States, we need to keep the dream alive. In a world where the basic fight for human dignity is still on the agenda, we need to keep the dream alive.

Dr. King is not just history. His dream is the history we have not yet written.