On April 4, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., while showing solidarity with more than 1,000 striking low-wage sanitation workers, all African Americans. The spark for the strike was the deaths of two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, due to malfunctioning garbage trucks. The utter disregard by city officials for these tragic deaths, coupled with the ongoing racist, anti-worker abuse by the city of Memphis, resulted in this historic strike. The wages of these workers were so low that many of them were forced to rely on food stamps and welfare to supplement their salaries to help keep themselves and their families afloat.
On April 8, 1968, Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, along with Civil Rights leaders and union officials, initiated a march of more than 40,000 people to honor of Dr. King and put pressure on then Mayor Henry Loeb and the Memphis City Council to recognize the right of the sanitation workers to unionize — a right that was won on April 16, 1968.
Before he was killed, Dr. King spoke to the sanitation workers about the significance of their strike: “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.” (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” page 217)
Fast forward 46 years and Dr. King’s words are just as relevant today as ever. Workers are facing even more dire conditions today compared to 1968. Mass layoffs and high unemployment are the norm. Congress voted last year to slash the food stamp program. Welfare, or Aid to Families with Dependent Children, was decimated in 1996 under the Clinton administration. Practically every benefit fought for and won by struggle has been under the knife, slashed and gutted.
But now low-wage, underpaid workers are taking center stage here and worldwide for a living wage and decent working conditions.
In the U.S., a central demand of these workers is for a $15-per-hour minimum wage. Some of the main targets of this struggle are McDonald’s, Burger King, Walmart, Dunkin’ Donuts, and many national and local chain restaurants and retail and box stores.
On April 4, in commemoration of Dr. King’s assassination and his campaign for social and economic justice, hundreds of protests took place to demand jobs and union wages and/or livable income for all. These protests included a youth march in Detroit and flash mobs in North Carolina fast food places. A march of hundreds of airport workers, from Kennedy Airport to LaGuardia Airport in New York City, took place in the rain. Immigrant rights activists held protests in Atlanta and elsewhere to demand no deportations of undocumented workers. Occupy Wall Street activists organized “Wave of Action” global events targeting the 1%.
A major mobilization is being called by the Baltimore Workers Assembly for April 29 in Washington, D.C., against the National Restaurant Association annual meeting. This association, which represents the interests of an important sector of the billionaire class, helps set the policies that keep millions of restaurant workers earning wages at poverty and below-poverty levels in non-union working conditions.
Workers World supports the struggles of low-wage, underpaid workers to better their pay and working conditions as well as their right to unionize. We understand the importance of using Dr. King’s legacy of struggle to help forward the struggle for social justice for all workers, especially the most oppressed.
The call for a $15 minimum wage deserves the support and political solidarity of progressive activists everywhere. The struggle of underpaid workers, which includes women and people of color in disproportionate numbers, is one that will benefit the entire worldwide working class.