"I Am a Man" was the slogan of 1,300 striking black sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968. Their grievances were many, but chief among them was that their wages were so meager they lived below the poverty line.
On April 4, 41 years ago last evening, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. He was in town to help the strikers gain recognition of their union, and his epic "I've been to the mountaintop" speech was a labor rally.
Dr. King is remembered as America's greatest civil rights leader, but the man was a towering labor leader as well. He clearly connected the dots between the immorality of racial inequality and the economic injustices inflicted on working men and women of all colors. It was the same struggle: to demand through collective action one's individual worth and dignity.
One of the great labor speeches in American history is King's 1961 address to the AFL-CIO. In it King reflected on the grand work of the labor movement. He said that in response to the "organized misery" of sweatshops and the notion that capital may "act without restraints and without conscience," the worker unionized and by doing so had "constructed the means by which a fairer sharing of the fruits of his toil had to be given to him."
How sad that in the intervening years King's message to workers has been lost. Worker solidarity has given way to an every-man-for-himself ethic that has helped to strip labor of the influence it once had.
No surprise then that America's prosperity over the last 30 years has not been shared with the workers who created it, with essentially all of its rewards flowing to those at the top. Workers are no longer at the table when the pie gets divided, so they get the crumbs.
It seems the American worker has just been waiting around for, as King put it, "charitable impulses to grow in his employer."
Well, they haven't.
A case in point is Mark Wilson, the president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, who represents more than 139,000 employers. He complained recently that the jobs in Florida didn't pay well enough relative to the state's high cost of living.
But his point was that Florida needed more businesses that employ researchers and other highly paid professionals, not that unskilled workers finally need a boost.
When I suggested that one way to raise wages would be to require that anyone who labors 40 hours a week for an employer should be paid enough to afford basic food, shelter, health care and transportation, he blanched.
A mandatory "living wage" is anathema to the chamber.
The exchange was a little too reminiscent of Victor Hugo's quip in Les Miserables, that there is always more misery among the lower classes than there is humanity in the higher. (A line that King used in his AFL-CIO speech.)
I am hopeful that the confluence of our tanking economy, with workers losing even more ground, plus the exposure of so many craven corporate executives, will lead to a renaissance for the labor movement.
According to Stewart Acuff of the AFL-CIO, labor has experienced more growth in the last two years than in a generation, with 400,000 new union members last year alone. And now, with a president and vice president from working families, the signs are good that government will again be on the side of average people.
In Memphis right now sanitation workers make between $13 and $26 per-hour. They are covered by health insurance, enjoy sick leave and annual vacation benefits. This is what unionizing brought them. Dignity and a decent life. A man's life.
The evening before he was assassinated, King told the sanitation workers that "only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars." When things look dire, new opportunities come clear. That's true for American workers today, but only if we embrace solidarity once again.