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UPE News Item


All Labor Has Dignity: MLK and the Labor Movement

On January 16, 2017 UPE members stopped to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day and remember Dr. King’s fight for equality, justice, and civil rights.  UPE Members and staff joined 25,000 other Marchers to take part in the MLK March for the Dream.


While Dr. King’s work on civil rights is well known, his historic support for the American labor movement is sometimes overlooked by history.  In fact, MLK passionately supported workers’ rights and unions as a critical part of his overall civil rights program.   Martin Luther King struggled during the 1950s and early 1960s to desegregate the South and allow African Americans equal access to rights guaranteed by the constitution.  Following the successes of the early Civil Rights movement King began the Poor Peoples Campaign in 1967.  King believe that all the civil rights gains of the 50s and 60s would be meaningless if people could not earn enough money to be financially secure.  This message echoed the calls of labor unions, which had long fought for livable wages and saw workers rights as key to civil rights.

Kings labor activism came to a head in 1968.  On February 1, 1968 two Memphis sanitation workers were killed when a truck malfunctioned and crushed them.  These deaths were just the latest in string of tragedies suffered by Memphis’ sanitation workers.  The City’s white elected leaders failed to help to protect the black sanitation workers.  In fact, the city’s mayor pointedly refused to take basic steps to protect workers from dangerous trucks.

The February 1st deaths were the final straw and on February 13, 1968 1300 Memphis sanitation workers went on strike.  African American leaders across the South expressed their support for the strike.  Dr. King came to support the strikers in March of 1968 speaking before a crowd of 25,000 people.  As the strike drug on King returned to Memphis on April 3, 1968 to urge nonviolence and pressure politicians to give into the strikers’ demands.  Unfortunately, Dr. King was shot leaving his hotel tragically ending the life of one of the greatest Americans.

United Public Employees
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