Fighting for public sector union rights 50 years after MLK’s assassination

The night before his assassination in April 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke before a group of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee as they prepared for a march for civil rights, union recognition, and economic justice. The movement behind the strike started earlier that year, when two Memphis garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were sucked in by a malfunctioning compactor mechanism on a garbage truck and crushed to death. On the same day, when a heavy rainstorm hit, the city sent 22 black sewer workers home without pay while their white supervisors were retained with a full-day’s pay. 12 days later, more than 1,100 black men from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike, demanding recognition of their union, better safety standards, and a decent wage. The sanitation workers were led by garbage-collector-turned-union-organizer, T. O. Jones, and supported by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb fought to break the workers’ strike, and “refused to take dilapidated trucks out of service or pay overtime when men were forced to work late-night shifts. Sanitation workers earned wages so low that many were on welfare and hundreds relied on food stamps to feed their families.” As Michael K. Honey writes in Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign, one of the things Loeb was most fervent about opposing was the dues-checkoff provisions that the sanitation workers wanted in their union contract. The workers on strike in Memphis knew that a dues checkoff—whereby union members voluntarily authorize the employer to make regular deductions from an employee’s wages to pay their union dues—was crucial to the union’s survival, especially given that Tennessee had passed a so-called “right-to-work” law, which allowed nonunion members to refuse to pay their fair share of dues but still collect the same benefits as union members. Loeb surely knew that the powers conferred to workers in the union contract—including an increase in black sanitation workers’ wages, protections for black workers from race-based employment discrimination, and a procedure for the black sanitation workers to file grievances against their white supervisors—would become wholly ineffective if the union could not collect dues to support its basic operations. More than once, the city had offered to settle the strike on the condition that dues checkoff be prohibited from their contract—but workers persisted, knowing that the “dues checkoff remained crucial, for without it, the union would not survive.” One of the cofounders of the Community on the Move for Equality, Reverend Malcom Blackburn, even embodied dues checkoff in his call to action.

Our Henry, who art in City Hall,

Hard-headed be thy name.

Thy kingdom C.O.M.E.

Our will be done,

In Memphis, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our Dues Checkoff,

And forgive us our boycott,

As we forgive those who spray MACE against us.

As lead us not into shame,

But deliver us from LOEB!

For OURS is justice, jobs, and dignity,

Forever and ever. Amen. FREEDOM!

“Sanitation Workers’ Prayer,”

Recited by Reverend Malcom Blackburn

The day after King arrived in Memphis the night of April 3, 1968, to speak to the group of sanitation workers, he was shot and killed stepping out of his room at the Lorraine Motel. On April 8, Coretta Scott King, the Southern Christian Leaderships Conference, and union leaders led approximately 42,000 people on a silent march through Memphis in Dr. King’s honor, demanding that Loeb recognize the sanitation workers’ requests. On April 16, the city finally recognized the sanitation workers’ union and negotiated a contract, which included a dues checkoff.

Now, fifty years after Martin Luther King’s efforts to help the sanitation workers gain union recognition, corporate interests are still fighting to undercut public-sector unions by crippling their financial support. On February 28, 2018, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case called Janus v. AFSCME. Just as the funding for the sanitation workers union was at issue in their battle over a dues-checkoff provision in their contract, the financial stability of public-sector unions at issue in the Janus case.

Janus v. AFSCME could profoundly affect the ability of public-sector workers to improve their wages and working conditions. The case threatens the right of the majority of workers, through their democratically elected union, to bargain a contract with their public employer that requires every employee covered by the contract to pay their fair share of the costs of negotiating it, administering it, and enforcing it. The Supreme Court decided this issue forty years ago in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education and it has been the law of the land since.

Janus is nothing more than the latest attack on workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. The Supreme Court considered this issue in its 2016-2017 term in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which resulted in a 4-4 split decision upholding a lower court decision that permits public employee unions to assess fees on non-members who benefit from collective bargaining and union representation and who unions are required to represent. In any other circumstance, it would be outrageous to demand the benefits of a common enterprise without paying one’s fair share. Union representation is no different. Eliminating fair share fees protects people who want to get something for nothing and as a result, starves unions. It is also profoundly undemocratic to elevate the objections of a minority over the democratically determined choices of the majority of workers.

This principle is what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was fighting for on the day he was killed, and it is what’s at stake in Janus. The decision in this case will determine the future of effective unions, democratic decision making in the workplace, and the preservation of good, middle class jobs in public employment.