Martin Luther King’s fight for economic justice matters today. Working people are walking in his footsteps.
By David Tucker
Americans are right to remember the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a leader who was unshakably committed to the principle of nonviolence.
But let’s not forget that he was a fighter.
On the day he was murdered, nearly 47 years ago, King was in Memphis, Tenn., standing with black city sanitation workers who had gone on strike for higher pay, safe working conditions and the right to stick together.
Martin Luther King’s last act was to stand with public service workers as they fought for a union.
Remembering this was especially painful last week because of what I heard out of the Supreme Court in Washington, not far from where I work at National Airport. The court heard arguments last Monday in a case called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association that could restrict the rights of teachers and nurses, firefighters and police officers — and sanitation workers in Memphis — from having a say in wages and how we serve our communities.
But people like me have an answer for anyone who thinks that one court case is going to stop us from winning better pay, improved working conditions and a union here in 2016: Nothing will stop us. In fact, between yesterday and today, we’re landing a one-two punch.
Last night, fast-food cooks and cashiers who are part of the growing Fight for $15 movement went on strike in and around Charleston, S.C., the site of the fourth Democratic presidential debate. They rallied and marched outside the debate with child care teachers, home care workers and other underpaid Americans to send a message to candidates for office in 2016: it’s time for an agenda that puts working people first.
They have to respond because 64 million people in America make less than $15 an hour, and during this election year, we’re turning ourselves into a movement of voters. The Fight for $15 is collecting signatures on a voter agenda that calls for $15 and union rights, affordable child care, quality long-term care, racial justice and immigration reform.
And today, people like me who keep our airports running and travelers safe are engaging in large-scale, national civil disobedience in nine major cities from New York to Miami. Baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, security officers and others protesting wages we can’t live on and working conditions that are as unfair in our time as the Memphis sanitation workers’ were in theirs.
Consider this: I’ve been working at National Airport since 1962, six years before King died. My hourly wage then was $1.75. Today it’s $3.77. More than 50 years, and just a two-dollar raise.
But I can see the tide is turning, and it must be scaring the wealthy people who funded the Friedrichs court case. For example, more than 11 million people have won raises across the country since the first Fight for $15 strike as voters and citizens in cities and states from Los Angeles to Chicago to New York have moved to lift minimum wages. And more than 70,000 airport workers nationwide have won wage increases or improvements such as health insurance or paid sick leave.
King believed in the promise of America — that everyone should be able to succeed — and the last phase of his life of struggle focused on expanding economic justice. That’s why he was in Memphis. He called for basic economic security and stability for working people of all races and religions. As King told the sanitation workers shortly before he was killed, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”
And today, the economy is even more out of balance than it was in King’s time. It’s astonishing to think about, but it’s true. Real wages have fallen, people work hard but can’t afford basic needs like transportation and groceries, and African Americans’ median wages are still lower than those of white workers.
King aimed to hold the powerful accountable, and so do we. We will hold corporations and candidates accountable.
Corporations like Menzies Aviation, which, on top of paying its workers poorly, intimidates, threatens and harasses them, and McDonald’s, which rakes in billions but tells its underpaid U.S. employees to get on food stamps to get by.
Candidates like Donald Trump, who said that wages in the United States are too high, and Chris Christie, who said the teachers union deserves a “punch in the face.”
We will continue to march and rally at candidate debates. And this won’t be the last time we engage in civil disobedience at airports. You’ll see us time and time again this year, from the streets to workplaces to the ballot box.
Martin Luther King stood for economic justice, and he showed us tremendous change is possible when people decide to stand up together. Nothing will stop us.
David Tucker is a luggage porter at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.