Martin Luther King and Public Employees

January 14, 2011

Statement of AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee to commemorate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday

Had he not been felled by an assassin’s bullet, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 82 this year. On the night before his death in 1968, Dr. King spoke in Memphis to workers who were trying to earn a decent living and provide for their families. They were sanitation workers, public employees, the men who collect the daily garbage. They were members of AFSCME Local 1733.

For months those men faced enormous opposition to their efforts to organize. They were opposed by the men who controlled the city government. They had few allies in the business community. They faced accusations of being led by radicals and communists. They suffered terrible violence. When Dr. King led a march in support of the union in March of 1968, the police challenged the crowd with nightsticks, mace, tear gas and gunfire. A 16-year-old boy, Larry Payne, was shot to death.

Dr. King understood that public employees – sanitation workers, road crews, police, teachers, fire fighters, nurses and others – deserved the same rights as all workers. They had a right to organize and bargain collectively. He knew that strong unions helped all workers, by expanding opportunity and increasing salaries. He said that throughout the history of our country, “the labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.” He said: “The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome.”

That was true in the past and it remains true today. While billions of dollars are given in tax breaks for the very wealthiest among us, corporate and political leaders demand even greater cuts in programs that provide care to veterans, educate our youth, and provide protection from crime for our communities. Across the country today, unions and public employees face enormous attacks. Efforts are underway to eliminate collective bargaining, cut workers’ pay and benefits, and reduce modest pensions for public employees in countless states.

We must work together to protect the progress that has been made. As we do, let us draw strength from the words he spoke to the members of AFSCME Local 1733 on his last night in Memphis: “Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.”