Martin Luther King Jr. and the attack on public workers
"I Am a Man" - Diorama of Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike - National Civil Rights Museum - Downtown Memphis - Tennessee. By Adam Jones, Ph.D. - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

This article was originally posted to on January 17, 2011. We repost it here today on the anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

How ironic. As we celebrate the life and historic contributions of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., public workers are under fierce attack across the country. As the economic crisis worsens for working people there is a coordinated campaign by big business, the newly energized, tea party Republican right, and some Democrats to resolve the crisis on the backs of public workers.

Can you imagine the folks who just got hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax breaks getting indignant at the wages of sanitation workers? What the top One Percent of the rich will each get just in tax breaks alone would provide decent, livable wages for several sanitation workers for a whole year. Such bald-faced hypocrisy is the currency of these attacks.

Sanitation workers pay is not a gift. The pay and benefits that many local governments are threatening to cut are earned with long hours of backbreaking, stinky work. Oh, the howls from the gated communities if the garbage isn’t picked up.

Dr. King was murdered in Memphis, Tenn., as he mobilized support for striking sanitation workers. Forty-three years later these same workers are under attack again. In the past year, Memphis sanitation workers have had to face down threats of privatization and severe job cuts. While across the nation sanitation workers (and fire, police, hospital, rescue, library, school and many other public service workers) pay, pensions and other benefits are on the chopping block in the name of “shared sacrifice.”

For those of us who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the memory of those poignant days in 1968 Memphis is especially intense in today’s climate of attack on public workers.

Speaking to a rally of striking AFSCME union members, who were mostly African American, in his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, just days before his assassination, Dr. King said, “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”

Can there be any doubt that if alive today, Dr. King would be leading the fight to defend all public workers and the fight for jobs. In Memphis, Dr. King brought together two mighty currents of the struggle for economic and social justice. Two deeply kindred currents: labor and civil rights; labor and communities of working people who face racism and discrimination.

And can there be any doubt where he would stand on the issues of the day? For instance, so many states are now proposing right-to-work-for-less laws and other measures to deny basic union rights to public service workers. Dr. King famously said, “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right-to-work.’ It provides no ‘rights’ and no ‘works.’ Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining… We demand this fraud be stopped.”

King would never have allowed anyone to separate the interests of public workers from those who need the public services they provide. And he was keenly aware of the issue of how to finance needed social programs. Most of us vividly remember his statement that “the bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America”, and, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

We are inspired and encouraged by Dr. King’s example, his work and his words. His words are not meant to comfort us in our efforts, but rather to spur us into greater action. We celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by standing up and fighting for public workers and public services with “greater determination.”

See also these articles on

Memphis 1968: We remember, Fred Gaboury, on April 3 2003.

One of the greatest stories of all times The Memphis sanitation workers strike remembered, “Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign.” by Michael K. Honey. Marilyn Bechtel, on August 22, 2008.

Memphis sanitation workers inducted into Labor Hall of Fame, Mark Gruenberg, on May 3, 2011.


Scott Marshall
Scott Marshall

Scott has been a life long trade unionist and was active in rank and file reform movements in the Teamsters, Machinists and Steelworkers unions in the 1970s and '80s. He was co-chair of the Save Our Jobs committee of USWA local 1834 at Pullman Standard in Chicago and active in nationwide organizing against plant shutdowns and layoffs. He was a founder of the unemployed organization Jobs or Income Now (Join), in Chicago, and the National Congress of Unemployed Organizations in the 1980s. Scott remains active in SOAR (Steelworkers Active Organized Retirees). He lives in Chicago.