Widening Concern for Public Workers

Widening Concern for Public Workers

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died in Memphis where he was showing support for the right of public employees to organize and strike.  We remember this, during a time when public workers in our country are under attack, as Dr. King’s day approaches.


It’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, the holiday that celebrates the Nobel Peace Prize–winner’s birth and life. The Reverend King wasn’t assassinated, as Rep. Gabrielle Giffords almost was, at a Congress on Your Corner. Or on a civil rights march.

He was assassinated in Memphis, where he was showing up to support the right of public employees to organize and strike.

What have civil rights got to do with public workers’ rights? To use President Obama’s language in Tucson, we need to "widen our circle of concern"—as King did—when it comes to civil rights.

Dr. King didn’t distinguish social rights from economic rights, surprising as that may seem to the commentators who’ve shrunk down his story for convenience sake. Like Eleanor Roosevelt and many of her contemporaries, King saw a linkage between legal rights—being permitted, say, to see a quality doctor, attend a quality school or live in a quality community—and economic rights: actually being able to make a living that permits you do to any of those things.

King saw public workers as the first line of defense. That’s why he went to Memphis to stand by striking sanitation members of AFSCME, the public worker’s union. In his view they led the way in the fight for fair pay and benefits… and in the fight for dignity for those who shovel our snow and clean our streets.

Daniel Hernandez, the intern for Gabrielle Giffords who is credited with saving her life, said something King-like at Wednesday’s memorial service.

"We must reject the title of ‘hero’ and reserve it for those who deserve it, and those who deserve it are the first responders and the public servants and the people who have made sure they have dedicated their lives to helping others.”

With exactly those workers under attack right now, Hernandez, the out gay son of an immigrant, was right on target. This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we would all do well to join King and Hernandez—and widen our circle of civil rights concern to include those who do the work that enables the rest of us to do ours cleanly, calmly and safely.

The F Word is a regular commentary by Laura Flanders, the host of GRITtv and editor of At The Tea Party, out now from OR Books. GRITtv broadcasts weekdays on DISH Network and DIRECTv, on cable, and online at GRITtv.org and TheNation.com. Follow GRITtv or GRITlaura on Twitter and be our friend on Facebook.

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