THE BLOG

Eerie Echoes of a Long-ago Battle

04/08/2011 12:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2011

Forty-three years ago this week Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee where he'd gone to stand with a beleaguered band of city sanitation workers who had been out on strike for nearly two months. Those workers were part of my union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). They were a small local, made up entirely of African-Americans, in a region of the country that had demonstrated scant good will toward labor unions and even less towards black men seeking to better their lives.

I was with Dr. King during his time in Memphis. Today the struggle of union members in Wisconsin and elsewhere stirs my memories of that time.

In 1968 I was on AFSCME's national staff and had been sent to Memphis to aid the strikers. Decades have passed, yet that initial impression stays so fresh and strong in my mind. Men, weary and worn-down by back-breaking labor, looked down upon as "garbage men", dark-skinned and old beyond their years. Yet there they were, day after day, walking the picket lines with their heads -- and signs -- held high. Their message still echoes down the years: "I am a man."

They were paid little more than the minimum wage, and not paid at all if it rained and garbage couldn't be collected. Their work was often dangerous, lacking even minimal safety protections. In fact, it was the deaths of two workers chewed up in the trash machinery that helped to spark their walkout.

They sought better pay and fairer treatment, but most fundamentally, they were striking for recognition of their right to have a union. The politicians attacked them relentlessly, claiming they just didn't want to do their jobs. The mayor was willing to pay them a little more money, but flat-out refused to recognize their right to form a union that would allow them to bargain from a position of strength, not beg for crumbs from a position of weakness.

I saw in these men something noble in their bearing -- at once humble and dignified -- and something ennobling in their steadfast insistence on being treated with respect. I believe Dr. King saw it as well. He came to Memphis without hesitation or question because he knew with utter clarity that the sanitation workers' struggle for labor rights was an essential aspect of the struggle for human rights to which he had devoted his life.

It was there, finally, that he gave his life to the struggle. After his death, the strike was soon settled and the sanitation workers won their right to have a union. In the ensuing years, that right brought them improved pay and working conditions, but more profoundly it brought them the dignity and respect that are at the core of our democracy.

Dr. King is always in my thoughts on this sad anniversary, but never more so than this year, with its eerie echoes of that long-ago battle for fundamental collective bargaining rights on the streets of Memphis. Today we find ourselves once again facing politicians who are fiercely determined, no matter what the cost to the public good, to deny workers a voice on the job. In 2011, sanitation workers and nearly every other public employee in the states of Wisconsin and Ohio find themselves denied their right to collective bargaining just as their brethren in Tennessee were in 1968.

Today it has once again become acceptable for politicians to belittle public employees and the important, often demanding, jobs they perform. We rely on these men and women when a fire breaks out, when the snow piles up, when disaster strikes. We entrust them with the care of our children, the health of our communities, and the safety of our streets. I believe they deserve our appreciation, not vilification.

That's why working people throughout the country are rallying this week, under the banner "We Are One," at more than 1,000 events all across the nation. They are standing up to defend their rights and to defy the raw power grab by the corporate elite that is behind the assault on those rights.

Like thousands of Illinoisans who have marked the anniversary in their own communities, I will be traveling to Chicago on Saturday for a culminating statewide rally. When I rise to speak to those assembled -- those who work in the public or the private sector, union members and union supporters, all of them joined together by the conviction that animated Dr. King nearly half a century ago -- I will recall those sanitation workers in Memphis. And I will know, deep in my heart, that once again we shall overcome.