“All labor that uplifts humanity has a dignity and importance…,” uttered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he stood in front of 10,000 sanitation workers, demanding union recognition. King delivered this speech to Memphis workers on March of 1968, a mere 17 days before his assassination. These words won’t be weakened, whitewashed and regurgitated across all platforms today, but they were among his most important, as he helped to usher one of America’s largest unions. When the smoke settled, the union was born, King was killed, and the labor movement survived only in purgatory.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination on his visit to Memphis to support the sanitation strike. Despite this and similar efforts, including an entire chapter of the Civil Rights Act dedicated to employment, King's legacy as a champion of labor and employment is often overlooked. More importantly, the very policies he fought so hard to establish may now see its demise as we prepare to recognize his semicentennial.

In that 1968 speech, King implored the sanitation workers to "escalate the struggle" if they were not being dignified. Over 1,300 Black workers took strike at the time to demand union recognition and safer work conditions after two on-duty employees were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck.

Memphis Mayor and legislators were openly against unionizing public employees and public workers like law enforcement and firefighters were retaliated against if they attempted to form a union. By the time King got involved, the chief concerns were granting collective bargaining rights and accessing agency fees.

Agency fees are dues paid to the union to fund operation and representation of all employees within its coverage.  Without these fees, the union is crippled and the city will have the power to freely exploit its workers.

Agency fees are as big as a concern now as they were 50 years ago. For the third time in four years, the United States Supreme Court will decide whether requiring public employees to pay union dues would violate the 1st amendment as a form of compelled speech. In 2014, the Court ruled that the workers in question were exempt from the rule because they weren’t full-fledged public employees and the 2016 case ended in a deadlock after Justice Scalia’s sudden death.

With the court’s conservative majority restored, it is all but guaranteed that it will overturn a forty-year-old case that requires non-union members to pay membership dues.

Why is it important to require a person to pay dues to an organization if they’re not a member?

That’s a reasonable question, but it’s an oversimplified understanding of the union-member relationship. In many cases, public unions represent all public employees in its bargaining unit, whether they are members are not. That means, when a union sits down with management to negotiate for things like minimum salaries, job security and protected activities such as taking time off to vote without being punished, every employee receives those benefits.

And to bargain for these rights, the union relies on fees from every person benefitting. So if the Supreme Court strips away the fees, the union loses its resources and employees lose their protections. Thusly, creating a labor force without dignity.

In the private sector, nearly $100 million has been spent in a campaign for livable minimum wages. What has become known as the “Fight for $15” has galvanized service workers across the nation to lobby for an increase in pay as millennials accumulate historic student loan debt and the country remains largely stagnant on income disparities between men and women and whites to people of color.

Economic justice is widely regarded as the second phase of King’s vision for the Civil Rights movement. This was becoming central to his last battles. Weeks before his murder, King delineated the two Americas.

“[T]here are literally two Americas,” King explained. “One America is beautiful for situation. And, in a sense, this America is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity.”

“But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America” he describes to a human rights group. “ In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

King spoke of a time where respectable wages weren’t a fleeting dream and unions were strong enough to zealously represent. Instead, 2018 has shown that the link between hard work and access to success has become enshrined in a golden hall of America’s most overpromised conceits.

So, while we witness yet another year of sanitized quotes extracted from context, let us not forget the teeth in King’s legacy. Let us not make room for those lawmakers and luminaries to cloak themselves in sanctimony while opposing the very tenants of his vision. Let us continue the battle for economic justice.