From the March-April 2018 issue of News & Letters
by Gerry Emmett
“We will go there, we will demand to be heard, and we will stay until America responds. If this means forcible repression of our movement, we will confront it, for we have done this before. If this means scorn or ridicule, we embrace it, for that is what America’s poor now receive. If it means jail, we accept it willingly, for the millions of poor already are imprisoned by exploitation and discrimination.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dec. 4, 1967, on the Poor People’s Campaign
On Feb. 12, workers across the country marched in Fight for $15 demonstrations held to commemorate the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and Dr. King’s visionary, multi-racial Poor People’s Campaign. King was in Memphis to support that Black workers’ strike for higher wages, union rights, and human dignity when he was assassinated.
Rev. Cleophus Smith participated in the 1968 strike: “We went through terrible ordeals, having to work in the cold; we didn’t have sufficient equipment, didn’t have water to drink. No place to wash our hands. When we went to lunch, we didn’t have anywhere to sit. We didn’t just strike so that the city would recognize our union, we did it to demand that we be treated with basic dignity and respect. I’m proud to march alongside fast food workers who are continuing our struggle.”
Organizers in Memphis expected 1,500 marchers, but many more showed up. Buses came from St. Louis, Kansas City, Raleigh, and even Boston.
In Detroit, fast food, childcare, janitorial and hospital workers joined the nationwide protest. “We are going to send a message to corporations and politicians that their time of rigging the economy against workers is over. We have to stand up and fight back,” said Rev. W.J. Rideout.
In Albany, New York, fast food workers marched on the State Capitol and a local McDonald’s restaurant. In Greenville, North Carolina, workers rallied outside McDonald’s for higher wages and workplace respect. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, protestors called for a $15 minimum wage at Mitchell International Airport. In San Diego, California, where minimum wage is scheduled to rise to $15 by 2022, fast food workers demonstrated outside McDonald’s and announced a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience in support of a nationwide increase.
STILL FIGHTING FOR THE DREAM
More than 50% of Black workers and 60% of Latinx workers earn less than $15 an hour. Over half of these workers are women. Many workers, especially in the South, only make the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Racist state politicians have done their part to keep wages down, recently blocking minimum wage increases that were enacted in St. Louis and Birmingham.
Further, violations of minimum wage and overtime rules are common. It is difficult for workers to collect back wages they have been cheated out of.
So many low-wage workers have the brutal experience of doing a four-hour shift of hard labor at UPS or FedEx—equivalent to eight hours’ work—only to change into their fast food or nursing care uniform and pull another shift. These workers are the backbone of this movement. Sepia Coleman of Memphis said: “We’re still fighting for the dream. The dream for equality, the dream for justice and equal rights for women, especially minority women. As a home care worker, I can’t make it off $7.25 an hour. Nobody can.”
She was echoed by Yolanda Bryant of Detroit: “I would go to work when it’s dark outside; when I come back it’ll be dark. I would be home just long enough to take a shower, sleep three or four hours, and back working 16 hours a day. It gets to be frustrating. Especially when you’re a nursing home worker, taking care of elderly people. How are you gonna take care of somebody else if you can’t take care of yourself?”
LABOR’S FULL POTENTIAL
When Karl Marx wrote that “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin when in the black it is branded,” he marked the crossroad of U.S. history. Today 55% of all workers making under $15 an hour are white.
The U.S. labor movement has always been measured by whether it unites Black and white workers—or today, more broadly, the multiple subjectivities that make up a very diverse working class. Thus these Fight for $15 demonstrations, by summoning up the historic memory of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, call on labor to rise to its true potential as a revolutionary class.
How significant is this? In fact it is exactly this unity that the ruling class has been fighting for decades, by promoting racism, sexism, and xenophobia, by imprisoning the poor, by breaking unions, and by placing the entire burden of its bourgeois crisis on the backs of the most oppressed.