Everyone knows that fifty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, just one night after giving his famous “I’ve been to the mountain-top” speech. What many people don’t know is that King was in Memphis that week not for a civil rights rally or event, but to support a strike among Black sanitation workers who were trying to form a union with AFSCME after two men were crushed to death on the job. For Blacks in the Jim Crow era, civil rights and worker rights were inexorably linked.
Revisionist history has obscured the persistence of that link today. Research shows that attacks on public sector unions, like the one that still represents sanitation workers in Memphis today, disproportionately impacts people of color, particularly Black women who make up a large part of this workforce.
North Carolina, like so many other southern states, has weak protections for public sector workers like the sanitation employees that King was in Memphis to champion on the day when he was shot. But weak labor laws in the South are not accidental. Instead, stunting unions has been part of a historical effort, deeply rooted in the Jim Crow South, to deny economic opportunity to Blacks by using racism to diminish workers’ rights.
Opponents of public sector unions pioneered their “right to work” strategy in the South, many using outright white supremacy and racism to make their case. Vance Muse, a Texan who frequently declared himself a proud southerner, coined the term “right to work” and campaigned for it by warning that “white women and white men will be forced into organizations [labor unions] with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”
Arkansas and Florida were the first southern states to pass these laws that limit unions’ bargaining power by creating separate status for members and non-members in union work-places. Today, every southern state has right-to-work laws that prevent unions from bargaining with the same leverage for wages, working conditions and fairness on the job. North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia also share the dubious distinction as being the three states which have no collective bargaining rights for any public employees.
Now unions in every other state are in jeopardy because of a U.S. Supreme Court case fueled by notorious right-wing donors like the Koch brothers. Recent documents show that the Janus vs. AFSCME case to be decided in June by the Supreme Court has been decades in the making as part of a larger conservative strategy to destroy labor unions. A decision in this case could result in a new legal precedent that would make “right to work” the national norm, significantly weakening public sector unions and resulting in the same kind of impacts we’ve seen in North Carolina—lower wages, less robust benefits, and weaker protections for workers.
That kind of outcome is about as far away from Dr. King’s legacy as we can get, and would take workers—especially Black workers—back in time to re-fight the same battles that King himself led.
Today more than ever, we all need to remember that King wasn’t just fighting for voting rights, but also for poor people, workers, and equity and for justice for all. Reaching the “promised land over the mountaintop” requires the collective recommitment to racial and economic justice that he modeled, time and time again.
Michael De Los Santos is the Deputy Director of Action NC.