Legacy of MLK: Unions Can Help Us Get to the Promised Land

Today, as we commemorate the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, it's time for on honest assessment of just how far we've come towards achieving his dream of freedom and justice for all.

A quick snapshot of today's income inequality and continued health and educational disparities suggests that we haven't come too far. In fact, a report released earlier this week by economists Dr. Stephen Pitts and Dr. William Spriggs, Beyond the Mountaintop: King's Prescription for Poverty (PDF), provides a stark picture of how we've regressed since King called on all Americans to join together and "let freedom ring."

Economic disparity is higher today than it's been in this country since 1928. The minimum wage-$5.85 an hour-buys significantly less than the minimum wage of King's time. Healthcare disparities have actually grown. Today, more than one in five African Americans are uninsured, and African Americans have the highest rates of death due to diabetes, heart disease, and breast, lung, and colon cancer than any other ethnic group. Health disparities for the Hispanic community are similarly grim. And perhaps most sobering-segregation and inequality continue to define our public school system. Most recently, we learned that in 17 of the nation's 50 largest cities, less than half of the students who entered high school in 2003 graduated (PDF).

Dr. King was assassinated during a campaign to support striking Memphis sanitation workers trying to secure better pay and working conditions by joining a union. Forty years later, workers are still fighting for economic justice and equality:

  • In San Francisco, security officers employed by Inter-Con to protect Kaiser Permanente patients and staff are preparing right now to strike to protest against Inter-Con's intimidation and coercion of workers.
  • In Minnesota, in an historic act of non-violent disobedience, security officers were arrested last month as they continued their campaign to win health care for the more than 800 security officers.
  • And in cities around the country, food service employees, janitors, and other workers employed by food service giant Aramark are working with SEIU, UNITE HERE, and community organizations to ensure the company provides quality jobs and services to communities nationwide.

Indeed, we've got lots of work to do. But there is hope. Drs. Pitts and Spriggs' report offers prescriptions for change and key among them is a call for more union organizing.

As King knew so well, unions have long built bridges to those islands of poverty that stain our society and threaten the American Dream. In the service sector, unionized African American workers earn as much as $2.00 per hour more than their non-unionized counterparts. The access that unions can provide to affordable healthcare and a secure retirement plan are the most powerful tools for leveling the socio-economic playing field that we have seen in modern times.

Take the example of the Houston Organization of Public Employees (HOPE), a group of 13,000 mostly African American and Latino public service workers who just won their first ever union contract last March. In a right to work state where barriers to union organizing can seem insurmountable, these courageous workers raised their minimum wage by 45 percent from $6.56 an hour to nearly $10 per hour. They also secured a steady three percent annual raise over the next three years and established controls on their responsibility for rising healthcare premiums.

Their hard work-organizing colleagues, gaining community support, and negotiating with the City of Houston-means an end to poverty wages in a city with a long history of racial disparities.

In the words of Felix Harvey, a mechanic in the Solid Waste Department of the City of Houston and a HOPE bargaining committee member, "All men may be created equally, but when we work together to stand up for our rights, we can ensure that they're also treated equally. Every man and woman should be able to speak up for what he or she thinks is right; that's what we are fighting for."

In time, these seeds of change will overpower the seeds of division that have spurred on the hatred and inequality that continue to plague this great nation. If we follow the prescription, we will come closer to those sacred ideals of justice and opportunity that our nation was founded on.

So forty years later, let's recall King's words, not as an opportunity to shame us for our failings, but as a reminder of the tools we have to change the status quo. Let's use his words as a beacon as we reinvigorate our journey up the mountain top and towards the Promised Land.

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