MLK and Unions

“You are doing many things here in this struggle. You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.”

—Martin Luther King, Jr. Excerpt from the “All Labor Has Dignity” speech delivered on March 18, 1968, at Bishop Charles Mason Temple of the Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tennessee. The church was overflowing with sanitation workers on strike and their supporters.

On February 12, 1968, 1,300 Black sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis, Tennessee. It began a few days after the gruesome deaths of two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed to death by a garbage truck. These men were in thankless jobs that were extraordinarily dangerous, and they were paid a pittance for it. They were not allowed to form unions and were paid far less than their white co-workers.

The strikers faced enormous police state violence too. They were beaten and teargassed. One 16-year-old boy, Larry Payne, was shot and killed by police during one of the demonstrations. Martin Luther King, Jr, along with other civil rights activists, traveled to Memphis in solidarity with the strikers. It was there that he delivered the speech where he said: “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” Dr. King was assassinated one day later.

Toward the end of his life, King’s rhetoric was considered too radical by many white “moderates” or liberals. This, and his stand against the imperialistic war against Vietnam and militarism, made him a pariah to polite, white, bourgeois society. In fact, at the time of his death 75% of Americans disapproved of his antiwar and pro-labour stances. King terrified the ruling class because he called for revolutionary socio-economic changes that defied the capitalist hegemony.

King was right. War and militarism never benefit the poor or working class no matter the country in which they happen to reside. In fact, it is the exact opposite. And ALL labour does have dignity. But dignity is not merely a pat on the back. It means fair wages and benefits, sick pay, holiday pay, worker safety, paid maternity leaves and equal representation. It also means guaranteed healthcare and housing that is not tied to labour at all.

Just as the sanitation workers in Memphis were treated with disdain and exposed to dangerous working conditions, the pandemic revealed that little has changed when it comes to protecting and compensating workers. Whether it be store clerks, delivery people, janitors, baristas, truck drivers, hospital staff or others in so-called “frontline” positions, we witnessed firsthand how neoliberal, corporate culture devalues human beings and their worth when it matters most.

Recently, Starbucks founder and interim CEO Howard Schultz lamented that companies are being ‘assaulted’ by the ‘threat’ of unionization. Shultz net worth is estimated at 4.3 billion dollars USD. How any person who has more wealth than some small countries could feel threatened by workers who only want what is fair is staggering, but it is a safe bet that his sentiments are shared by most of his class.

After what Schultz admitted, it is worth repeating some other things King said to these Memphis sanitation workers that day in 1968:

“Now let me say a word to those of you who are on strike. You have been out now for a number of days, but don’t despair. Nothing worthwhile is gained without sacrifice. The thing for you to do is stay together, and say to everybody in this community that you are going to stick it out to the end until every demand is met, and that you are gonna say, “We ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.” Let it be known everywhere that along with wages and all of the other securities that you are struggling for, you are also struggling for the right to organize and be recognized.

Now the other thing is that nothing is gained without pressure. Don’t let anybody tell you to go back on the job and paternalistically say, “Now, you are my men and I’m going to do the right thing for you. Just come on back on the job.” Don’t go back on the job until the demands are met. Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed. Freedom is not some lavish dish that the power structure and the white forces in policy-making positions will voluntarily hand out on a silver platter while the Negro merely furnishes the appetite. If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for it.“

Today, as we see people around the world organizing labour unions and fighting back against an oppressive, exclusionary and deeply unequal culture of corporate despotism, we should keep King’s words on our minds and in our hearts. Because as the backlash grows, we will need to remember them now more than ever before.

Kenn Orphan is an artist, sociologist, radical nature lover and weary, but committed activist. He can be reached at