Dick Meister: Martin Luther King Jr. -- a working class hero

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Bay Guardian columnist Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, dickmeister.com.

 

While celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day today, let's remember that extending and guaranteeing the rights of working people was one of Dr. King's major concerns.

 You'll recall that King was in fact assassinated in 1968 while campaigning for striking sanitation workers who were demanding that the city of Memphis, Tennessee, formally recognize their union.

King had been with the 1300 African-American strikers from the very beginning of their 65-day struggle. He had come to Memphis to support them despite threats that he might indeed be killed if he did.

King considered the right to unionization one of the most important civil rights. And virtually his last act was in support of that right. For his assassin’s bullet struck King as he was preparing to lead strikers in another of the many demonstrations he had previously led.

King’s assassination brought tremendous public pressure to bear in behalf of the strikers. President Lyndon Johnson dispatched federal troops to protect strikers 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 negotiate with their bosses on setting their pay and working conditions. They could air their grievances. And they got overtime pay, their first paid holidays and vacations, first pensions, first health care benefits.

They got a substantial raise in pay that had been so low that forty percent of the workers had qualified for welfare payments.

And they won agreement that promotions would be made strictly on the basis of seniority. Which assured the promotion of African Americans to supervisorial positions for the very first time.

The strikers’ victory led quickly to union recognition drives –– and victories ––by   public employees throughout the South and elsewhere.

As a strike leader said, the strikers had won dignity, equity and access to power and responsibility.

Those clearly were the lifelong goals of Martin Luther King Jr., whether he was seeking civil rights for African Americans or labor rights for all Americans, black and white alike.

Bay Guardian columnist Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, dickmeister.com.

 

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