02/19/2013 01:42 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2013

Progress Is Still Possible for Workers Battling an Unfair System

Forty-five years ago this month, more than 1,000 men who did the backbreaking work of collecting refuse in Memphis, Tenn., walked off the job to protest poverty-level wages and unsafe working conditions, and to demand their employer treat them with respect.

The Memphis Sanitation Strike remains an indelible symbol of how the Civil Rights Movement and the labor movement's fight for economic justice are deeply intertwined. The sanitation strike embodied everything African Americans were fighting for: first-class citizenship, dignity, access to good jobs, fair wages, equal education opportunities and a level playing field. And it foreshadowed some of the battles working people, especially low-wage workers, continue fighting today.

One of the sanitation workers' grievances was that they earned wages so low many of them qualified for food stamps. But they didn't want public assistance. They wanted to work, earn fair wages and adequately provide for their families. Today, low-wage workers in various industries -- from janitorial and security services to home health and child care -- are in a similar struggle for family-sustaining wages and dignity on the job.

Battling an unfair system

Prince Jackson works the graveyard security shift at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. He's been on the job for 10 years but the contractor who employs him pays him only $8 an hour; a sum barely above the federal minimum wage and nearly impossible for an individual, let alone a family, to make ends meet. For meals, he sometimes relies on food pantries, and for shelter he rents a room. By the time he pays his rent and cellphone bill, he has little else left. Even a modest raise that provided an extra $150 a month, he said, would go a long way.

Jackson and other security workers at JFK simply want the contractor that employs them to pay fair wages that allow them to do more than barely subsist. They are speaking out in an ongoing campaign to raise public awareness of how security workers, responsible for public safety at one of the nation's busiest airports, receive poverty-level compensation. Airports and airlines outsource security jobs such as his to contractors to cut costs and boost profits. The contractors, too, want to keep costs minimal and boost their profits, so they keep wages low. The maneuver may further enrich wealthy shareholders but it's a raw deal for those at the bottom of the ladder. But Prince and some of his colleagues believe collectively they can eventually dismantle a deck that has systematically been stacked against them.

Even workers in service jobs who have boosted their wages through collective bargaining must remain vigilant and fight back continual attacks on their well-being. Recently in Minneapolis, thousands of janitors voted to authorize a strike should their employers not agree to fair contract terms. The workers clean buildings owned or occupied by some of Minneapolis's wealthiest corporations. Yet the contractors who employ them have put regressive proposals on the table that would reduce some full-time jobs to part time, eliminate benefits, including access to healthcare, and cut pay by as much as 40 percent (from $13 per hour for janitors to $10).

Contractors and corporations are reaping the benefits of a productive workforce yet they aren't equitably sharing those rewards. Since the late 1970s, even as the workforce has become more productive and the country has grown wealthier and corporate profits have soared, median household income has stagnated. One in two of us, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is poor or low income. Once solidly middle-class people have either fallen into poverty or are one paycheck, healthcare crisis or other financial calamity away from poverty. At the same time, corporations and the richest among us continue to take home a bigger piece of the pie.

Progress is possible

Too many working people across the country have to hope for overtime, string together two or three jobs or rely on public benefits to financially stay afloat. Just like Prince Jackson and the Minneapolis janitors, they don't want the hope of extra hours, food pantries or public assistance to make ends meet. Just like the Memphis sanitation workers 45 years ago, they want their employers to recognize their humanity, and they want to earn enough to support their families.

We are in a different time than the era of the Memphis sanitation strike, of course. But in some ways, what has captured the public conscience and driven a national conversation on income inequality is not all that different. Working people recognize they are working harder, longer hours, but economically they are standing still or going backward. Janitors in Minneapolis, security officers at JFK, healthcare workers in Pittsburgh and working people across this country are speaking out not just for better wages, but to hold their politicians accountable and to demand public policy priorities get in line with the needs of Main Street, not Wall Street.

But progress will not be achieved through public policy alone. We also have to collectively recognize that all work has value and agree that wealthy corporations who continue to make record or growing profits cannot continue to do so on the backs of hardworking people by making low-wage work even lower-wage work.