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Center for Labor Research and Education


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Between Bootstraps and the Bullet

New America Media

By Khalil Abdullah

40 Years Later, King’s Vision Still Misinterpreted

Washington, D.C. — If you were a sanitation worker janitor in Memphis 40 years ago, you were ready for a change: “We’re going to stand up and be men,” exclaimed Taylor Rodgers, human being.

You lifted heavy, heavy cans for light money, so light that you could still be eligible for welfare after working a 40-hour week: “Wasn’t going to take no more,” explained Taylor Rodgers, family man. He sought the blessings of his loved ones, his wife and children, before making that hard decision.

To go on strike. In the South. In 1968. Your working conditions were so abusive and dehumanizing, you went on strike in spite of knowing, just knowing, you might never work again in Memphis. Just might not be able to feed your family. But two of your co-workers had been crushed to death by a garbage truck’s compactor unit. Could have been you; might be you next time.

“We just walked out on our own; didn’t have a union,” said Taylor Rodgers, labor leader, who, after AFSCME Local 1733 was founded, became its president in 1972 and held the post for 20 years.

Rodgers was just one of the 1,300 striking African-American workers whose actions attracted the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dr. King was going to walk that picket line, in solidarity, to bring attention to the intersection of fair wages and justice. He was going to set out on a path to lay bare the realities of poverty — the structural realities — in America. But first there was to be the speech at Mason Temple. Rodgers was there, heard the ‘Mountaintop’ speech on April 3 –- knows some of it by heart to this day — and heard the news on April 4, the next day: King is dead.

On April 2, from a podium in the headquarters of SEIU, the union that now speaks for many of the country’s janitors and sanitation workers, Rodgers recounted his experiences as an eyewitness to those times and to the truth of a new report: “Beyond the Mountaintop: King’s Prescription for Poverty.” The co-authors, Drs. Stephen Pitts and William Spriggs, two of America’s leading economists, take a quantitative and qualitative view of the distance that African Americans have traveled from the 1960s to today.

There may be lies, damn lies and statistics, but the snapshots presented point to the uncomfortable truth that, overall, economic progress for African Americans has been halting. If the minimum wage provides a safety net for low-income workers, a description that fits many African Americans, the data show that “when adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage is actually lower today than it was when King launched the ‘Poor People’s’ campaign in 1968,” the report said.

Emphasizing that when King was talking about poverty, “he was not talking about social pathology, he was talking about policy,” Spriggs said. Spriggs went on to explain that numbers without context can paint a deceptive portrait. For example, when King was alive, “only 25 percent of adult African-American men had finished high school. Today, over 82 percent of African-American men have,” Spriggs said. So, if King had believed that ending poverty was rooted in the accumulation of individual behaviors, why is poverty in America so enduring? The numbers for what has come to be known as ‘taking personal responsibility’ seem to be moving in the right direction.

If King were alive today and asked whether we had ended poverty, “we would have to hang our heads down,” Spriggs said. “We would have to tell him, ‘no, sir.’ ”

Pitts explained that, on the “40th anniversary of a tragic event,” there is a “crisis around jobs” and a “crisis around low wage work.” It is the rippling of this “two-dimensional crisis” through the economy that the report’s authors maintain must be addressed. The two-headed hydra form the hardened core of today’s employment landscape, exacerbated by competition in a global market and employers who force down wages to net a higher profit on the backs of workers.

Citing the President’s Reagan’s anti-labor legacy in the 1980s as a contributing factor to setting the tone for American employers to emulate, the report and its authors call for a full-employment economy, with an increase in the minimum wage, a more progressive tax structure, and a legal framework that better endows workers with the legal right to organize.

Rodgers’s Local 1733 was formed partially through the efforts of men like AFCSME’s William Lucy, now an elder statesman of the labor movement who had arrived in Memphis in 1968 for that purpose. The sanitation workers’ strike was ultimately successful in securing rights, pay increases and recognition from a city whose mayor and incumbent political class regarded their African-American city workers as little more than chattel property.

And, the strike left a legacy that young men like Craig Jones, 29, could embrace decades later. Jones, a sanitation worker in Cincinnati, Ohio, successfully organized his fellow laborers to protest the lack of health care, no paid vacations, and a wage of $6.50 an hour paid by a private maintenance firm. He also took the podium. “I’ve learned how to use the right tactics and strategies to organize my people,” Jones said of his involvement with SEIU.

In Cincinnati, SEIU Union Local 3 was formed. Rallies and picket lines brought the employer to the bargaining table resulting in a new contract in 2008 that boosted the hourly wage by three dollars from $6.50 an hour and added benefits most American workers take for granted.

Chanelle Clark, a young organizer from Houston, Tex., also spoke of her co-workers’ successful efforts. “We set precedents on minimum wage,” she said of HOPE (Houston Organization of Public Employees), from “9.50 cents starting this month; $10.00 starting in 2009.” And she said a visit to the King Museum in Atlanta, “opened my eyes,” fueling her determination to persist in negotiating for a better future.

The report was underwritten by The Rosenberg Foundation. Its president, Ben Jealous, said in introductory remarks that “these are tough, tough times in our country,” but “it seems that our leaders restrict themselves to a narrow band of problems.” Alluding to the report, Jealous said the answers to today’s crisis in employment — for all Americans — “go deeper;” that it is “ludicrous” that the United States does not pursue a full-employment policy, one that results in a decent wage.

Jones said his generation, the one of rap artists and hip hop, has been labeled unfairly. “It’s not they’re scared of working, that’s a lie. They’re scared of working poor,” of not earning enough to meet the financial obligations in a job that holds no future and crushes their spirit.

It is a sentiment that Taylor Rodgers, philosopher, understands well. The sum of the report’s recommendations and the sacrifice of Dr. King came down to one word the bullet couldn’t kill: “Dignity,” Rodgers said quietly.