Column: King’s economic dreams remain unfulfilled
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the tragic assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who stands forever tall as one of the greatest leaders in U.S. history.
I’m in Memphis today, where King was murdered, with my fellow Teamsters, other union members, civil rights leaders and social justice activists to remember the life of a man who was an icon not only for African-Americans, but all who faced injustice, including the working poor.
Many may not know that King was in Memphis at that time because he was advocating for striking Memphis waste workers who faced unsafe working conditions and low pay. Two months earlier, two city sanitation workers had died when the vehicle they worked on malfunctioned and killed them. The reverend made it clear in his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the night before his death, that he was sure justice would come for all those disenfranchised, just not sure when.
“I just want to do God’s will,” he said that night. “And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over. And 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.”
In 2016, two of the 1968 strikers came to the Teamsters’ 29th International Convention to tell their stories about how they and this union stood together in an effort to bring dignity and respect to the workplace. Fifty years ago, they wore “I Am A Man” placards, the same ones workers will wear today.
One of those gentlemen, Alvin Turner, died last September. But the lessons he shared with thousands of union brothers and sisters that day still resonate. The Teamsters will continue the fight for justice in Memphis and across the nation going forward. That’s how this union will honor the memory of King beyond today’s important remembrances.
The Memphis strikers did eventually prevail in their fight. But the struggle for sanitation workers, both in Memphis and elsewhere, continues. Half a century later, the Teamsters are standing with waste workers fighting for workplace safety, because these jobs are still the most dangerous in the nation. This union and our members are still fighting for a living wage. And we’re still fighting for dignity and respect on the job.
The Teamsters have always stood at the forefront of equality, going back to contracts it negotiated more than 100 years ago. The union, when my father was its president, joined the March on Washington, provided financial support to King and the civil rights movement and participated in actions across the nation. Viola Liuzzo, wife of a Teamsters Local 247 business agent, gave her life in 1965 standing up against hate.
King knew that civil rights and labor rights were one and the same. Social justice and economic justice go hand in hand. In 1968, Memphis sanitation workers earned so little that many were on welfare and food stamps.
Does that sound familiar? It should. Today, millions of American workers need government assistance to make ends meet. It’s nothing short of a disgrace! The U.S. is the richest country in the world, but our workers need food stamps to feed their families. This has to change.
Now is the time for elected officials to listen to the demands of working people. It’s time to fulfill King’s final clarion call for economic justice.
James Hoffa is president of the Teamsters.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.