On Thursday April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed while standing on his hotel room balcony in Memphis. He was visiting the city to support striking African-American sanitation workers, who objected to their pay being significantly lower than their white counterparts.
Thursday April 4, 2013, upwards of 400 fast food workers in New York City struck. The date choice was a nod both to MLK and to Memphis sanitation workers, whose fundamental service work (like that of fast food workers) was compensated with below-poverty wages. Memphis strikers held iconic "I Am A Man" signs to illustrate that their demands were appeals to their basic humanity — a living wage, and equal treatment regardless of race. New York strikers held up "I Am A Man" and "I Am A Woman" signs to show that, 45 years later, service workers still struggle for that same recognition of basic human dignity.
Drawing this parallel is a brilliant move on the part of NYC fast work workers. It highlights the fact that nearly half a century later, service workers still struggle for the same necessity: a living wage and dignity at work. Perhaps more importantly, it highlights an aspect of MLK’s legacy too often erased in dominant educational and political discourses — that he was an advocate for workers rights and labor unions.
The erasure of MLK's work for economic justice scaffolds a "colorblind" framework of understanding racial inequality. It is beneficial for right wing politicians to portray the mouthpiece of the civil rights movement as one whose message was no more radical than the hope that Americans be judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Championing this image does not demand examination of economic racial inequality. It renders invisible the intersection between race and class which was a focal point of MLK’s rhetoric and life work.
"Negroes are almost entirely a working people ... Our needs are identical with labor's needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor's demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature, spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth." — Martin Luther King Jr, speaking to the AFL-CIO on Dec. 11, 1961
It also allows anti-union politicians to co-opt the message of a racial justice activist without dealing with the messy reality that Martin Luther King was a huge supporter of unions. He viewed organized labor as a rallying point for workers to reach across racial lines and mutually advance. When the most common understanding of MLK’s message situates him as a supporter of colorblind meritocracy, not only are pre-existing racial inequalities ignored, but dramatic and racialized income disparities are naturalized.
The average daily salary of a fast food company’s CEO is $25,000 — more than twice the average annual salary ($11,000) of a fast food service worker. A living wage in New York City is $15 an hour, and the average fast food worker makes $7.25 an hour, often while trying to support a family or fund the pursuit of a college degree. Poverty-level wages leave fast food workers skipping meals, living paycheck to paycheck, and turning to public assistance to survive despite holding down full-time jobs.
To support the efforts of NYC fast food workers for a living wage and the right to form a union, visit www.fastfoodforward.com and sign the petition.