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Nadia Stefko

Beyond the Mountaintop: We’re Not There Yet

I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. —Dr. Martin Luther King, 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech

Several prominent black economists joined a janitor, a public worker, a foundation president, a labor leader and a former Memphis sanitation worker who marched with Dr. King to mark the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis, during the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. What followed was a charge equally challenging to our culture, and no less fundamental.

Yesterday’s event, sponsored by the 1.9 million member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), brought together this group to discuss the impact of today’s economy on black workers. Using the assassination of Dr. King as a pivotal moment in our history, economists Steven Pitts of U.C.-Berkeley and William Spriggs, of Howard University used the occasion to release their new policy brief “Beyond the Mountaintop: King’s Prescription for Poverty.”

Drs. Spriggs and Pitts were joined at the table by SEIU’s Gerry Hudson; Taylor Rogers, a Memphis sanitation worker who marched with Dr. King in the days before his death; and Craig Jones of Cincinnati and Chanelle Clark of Houston, two young SEIU members who have led their coworkers in successful campaigns to win a voice and dignity on the job.

The energy—and frustration—of black workers’ struggles for economic justice past, present, and future was palpable. Dr. Spriggs artfully painted the historical arc. I’ll paraphrase him here, since I wasn’t able to write fast enough to keep up with him:

In 1969, less than 1/3 of adult African Americans were high school graduates. In 1969, to every 1,000 unmarried black women, 90 out-of-wedlock babies were born.

Today, more than 80 percent of blacks finish high school, and the out-of-wedlock birthrate among black women has dropped by more than 1/3. If Dr. King were here today and we told him that the graduation rate had more than tripled, and the birthrate was down by a third, he say “Great! You’ve done what needed to be done to solve poverty!”

But we’d have to hang our heads and tell him, “No, we haven’t.” In fact, we’d have to tell him, the minimum wage—which was $7.48 (in 2006 dollars) in 1969—is now actually two dollars less than it was when he marched in Memphis. We’d have to show that the unemployment rate among black men is higher now than it was then, and that the percentage of workers in the U.S. who are union members is less than half of what it was.

In an answer to a question about some of the barriers to black employment, including some community divisions, Dr. Spriggs echoed Dr. King’s words of 40 years ago: “This is not the time for changing the subject or bickering among ourselves…The problem is these jobs pay too little.”

The brief includes a straightforward and comprehensive action agenda that involves generating full employment, fighting discrimination, protecting workers’ freedom to unite, and raising the minimum wage. Between the economists’ presentations, Craig Jones and Chanelle Clark told their personal stories—examples of this agenda in action.

Craig Jones was a janitorial worker in Cincinnati earning $6.50 an hour with no healthcare, no sick leave, and no benefits of any kind. For two years, Jones and his fellow workers stood together to demand a voice on the job and a livable wage. In his remarks, Jones made it really clear that he got involved in this fight not just for himself, but for those who had gone before and for those that would follow. He talked about how his generation, when faced with a choice of minimum wage or earning a day’s wages in one hour on the corner, don’t have a real choice. The good news for Jones and his co-workers was that the Cincinnati janitors eventually won a contract that now pays more than $9.80 an hour, with health coverage and paid vacation leave. Still, the picture he painted of the challenges facing black youth really stuck with the audience.

Chanelle Clark, a public employee in Houston, also had a success story. She and her fellow workers, who had been making as little as $6.56 an hour, fought for and won (in the right-to-work-for-less state of Texas, of all places) an historic contract that will pay them a minimum of $10 an hour starting in 2009. “This is the first contract of my life I can walk away feeling proud of,” she told the room.

As the nation marks the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination, there’s a lot of mainstream media focusing on the story of the past, the story of what King and the movement he led achieved. While this is undoubtedly important, this report and these workers serve a vital reminder of all that he left for us to do and all that remains to be done. We haven’t achieved King’s vision of economic justice. Forty years later, we’re still out there wandering—hoping we’ll come upon the Promised Land sometime soon.

Nadia Stefko: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 12:00 PM, Apr 03, 2008 in Civil Rights | Economic Opportunity | Economy | Labor | Middle-class squeeze
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