'All Labor Has Dignity': It's Long Past Time to Realize King's Dream of Humane Working Conditions for All

Allison Stevens

Feb. 12, 2021

A half century ago, hundreds of Black sanitation workers marched through Memphis carrying signs bearing four small words: "I am a man."

Their short slogan carried a powerful message: Low-paid Black workers are human, and they deserve to be treated as such. Their lives, to quote today's activists for racial justice, matter.

The slogan — and its larger campaign for racial and economic equity — challenged systemic oppression of Black people. And it took on underlying white supremacist beliefs that positioned them as less than human and unworthy of humane working conditions and pay.

The campaign was sparked by an incident on February 1, 1968, when Memphis city officials forced workers to collect garbage during a heavy rainstorm, according to The Washington Post. Two men took refuge from the rain in the back of their truck and were crushed when it malfunctioned. The city refused to compensate their families for their deaths.

A week and a half later, on February 12, hundreds of Black sanitation workers walked off the job, launching a months-long strike for better safety standards, decent wages, and recognition of their union, according to the Martin Luther King Jr. Institute at Stanford University. It drew support from King, who believed that full civil rights depended on economic security in addition to enfranchisement and desegregation.

The Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice

King was assassinated in the midst of the campaign, and the city relented soon after his death, recognizing the sanitation workers' union and pledging to raise wages. Unfortunately, the city's immediate concessions did not yield wider reforms. More than five decades later, the broad struggle continues.

Today, wealth and income inequality are extreme — and becoming more so as the pandemic rages on. Black and Brown workers are more likely to hold low-wage jobs and more likely to work on the front lines of COVID-19. And they're dying from it at higher rates.

We at CPR are working to combat inequity through Policy for a Just America, an initiative that seeks policy change at the national and state levels to enfranchise those who are shut out of our democracy, particularly people and communities in the crosshairs of climate change, who are economically and socially oppressed and exploited, and whose workplaces are unsafe and unhealthy.

We're calling for legislation that would give workers the right to sue employers who violate federal health and safety laws. Workers badly need this right. Thousands of workers still die on the job every year, and millions incur work-related injuries. But because workers lack a "private right of action," they must rely on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, to act on their behalf. Sometimes OSHA isn't sympathetic to their claims or lacks the capacity to act on them. It shouldn't be this way.

We're also calling for stronger protections for whistleblowers who raise alarms about health and safety hazards in the workplace. And we're calling on the government to do more to address the hazards of climate change and COVID-19.

We're backing legislation that would require OSHA to protect workers from extreme heat and heat-related illnesses. And we're calling for protections for workers during and after the pandemic. We need an emergency temporary infectious disease standard, followed by a permanent one, that would require employers to develop a COVID-19 hazard assessment and control plan, follow physical distancing and sanitation guidelines, properly ventilate facilities, provide workers with masks, gloves and other supplies, and more. And we need it now.

As King told sanitation workers in 1968, "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. … All labor has dignity."

We agree — and we're pushing to realize King's dream of humane working conditions for all.

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