04/07/2014 12:29 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2014

Faith Leaders Are Standing With Workers to Confront Economic Injustice

Communities across the country are coming out to support the rights of workers -- their neighbors, and with good reason.

As corporations reap record profits in the billions of dollars, everyday Americans are recognizing the injustices in workers being paid poverty wages and denied their right to organize while executives are paid excessive salaries that have far outpaced workers' wage gains.

As part of these community efforts, we are increasingly seeing faith leaders speak out loudly for economic justice.

Pastors in Mississippi are supporting automobile plant workers' efforts to unionize and gain a voice in the workplace to improve their conditions.

Faith leaders in the dozens of U.S. cities where fast food strikes have spread are standing on the picket line with workers.

This is unsurprising given the role of religious institutions within communities and society, and has a foundation in our past.

The involvement of clergy in these types of struggles for economic justice has a storied history that is linked to the civil rights movement.

After two Memphis sanitation workers were crushed to death in 1968 and the over 1,000 Black workers walked off the job to protest poor working conditions, it was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who stood with them.

King visited Memphis, spoke to the workers and expressed solidarity with them, making the clear connection between workers' rights, civil rights and basic principles of justice.

It was the following day on a Memphis balcony where he was assassinated.

Those active in today's efforts to improve wages and working conditions for themselves and others honor King's legacy in this regard.

Just 46 years after King was assassinated on that April 4th, faith and community leaders joined together with the airline passenger service workers of the New York area airports to make similar demands of economic justice.

These more than 12,000 workers are employed by airline contractors making record profits, like Airway Cleaners/Alstate Maintenance, PrimeFlight, Air Serv and Aviation Safeguards are being paid less in real wages than the Memphis sanitation workers earned in 1968. They have no affordable health benefits, no paid holidays and no paid sick days. They do not even receive the national MLK Day holiday.

Living in one of the most expensive metropolitan areas of our nation and world, these airport workers are struggling to provide for themselves and their families, forced to rely on food stamps, food pantries and public assistance. Taxpayers are essentially subsidizing these contractors for paying poverty wages.

On the anniversary of Dr. King's death, the workers and their supporters marched for 10 miles from JFK Airport to LaGuardia Airport, invoking his spirit along the way.

Leaders of different denominations and from across the city participated -- bishop, reverend and rabbi alike, from the Bronx to Brooklyn.

They came together around this common goal because they understand the moral imperative in securing economic justice for the workers and families in our communities -- many are in their congregations.

Faith leaders understand that grave economic injustices can no longer be allowed to continue, because they tear apart the fabric of our society.

In New York, where the nationwide fast food strikes began and low-wage worker campaigns have been united in an unprecedentedly strong way, faith leaders have been involved from nearly the beginning.

Those of us engaged in bringing together workers from different sectors who wanted to raise their wages and improve their working conditions like airport, car wash and fast food workers knew the importance of clergy in the lives of workers and within the larger community.

Clergy have been leaders in this movement and continue to help it grow.

Just as the faith leaders together with airport workers and their other community supporters proclaimed on their 10 mile march between JFK and LaGuardia airports: it's time for workers to receive what they deserve -- justice, fair pay and benefits, and the right to organize in the workplace.

The airlines and their contractors need to do right by the thousands of workers who clean and secure our airplanes and airports.

Fast food corporations need to stop playing games with workers lives by paying poverty wages, stealing even those, and trying to intimidate workers from standing up for themselves.

These unscrupulous corporations are finding out very quickly that their mistreatment of workers is placing them not only on the wrong side of religious institutions, but entire communities and history.

It's a dangerous place to be - the notoriety of folks on the wrong side of the civil rights movement will never be forgotten.

Similarly, those who economically exploit workers today will not only be confronted now, but face the same disreputable legacy.