Private sector needs to honor King’s memory

Not just at breakfasts, but with wages paid to workers of color

THE EVENTS of April 4, 1968, in Memphis are seared into America’s collective memory. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is clearly acknowledged as a national tragedy. Even as we lionize King, we have forgotten the events that brought him to Tennessee in the first place: support for unionized black sanitation workers striking for basic respect, better working conditions, and wages that could sustain their families.

King knew the importance of public sector jobs as the ticket to the middle class for people of color. And since then, unions in the public sector have made tremendous strides in creating a pathway to the middle class. But the private sector has not kept pace. According to a recent report published by Demos, half of Latinos and 61 percent of black workers in Massachusetts public sector jobs earn wages adequate to sustain a family. Compare that to 27 percent of Latinos and 35 percent of workers in the private sector who are black, and the picture is clear: on average, private industry fails to provide sustainable wages for historically marginalized communities.

This is a long-term trend. The Demos report shows that here in Massachusetts between 1979 and 2014, the bottom 20 percent saw their average annual income decline 0.2 percent. Meanwhile, incomes for the top 1 percent of households grew 4.3 percent per year. That night in Memphis, King noted that he might not get to the mountaintop, but his dream was for people of color and poor people to continue to climb towards justice. The flat-lining of incomes over the last half-century has not lived up to Dr. King’s dream, and while wages for marginalized people, especially persons of color, have stagnated, there has been a mountain of corporate profits.

It’s easy to see what led to this disparity. From the chipping away of public education funding to the starving of our public transportation infrastructure, there has been a decades-long assault on public investment. Not only are all Americans being denied public resources that contribute to the common good, the very jobs that create opportunity are being eliminated.

Despite this ongoing decline of the public good, we have data that shows that public sector jobs still lift up communities of color. Not only do they provide incomes that support families, but these jobs create community stability with higher rates of home ownership and a higher rate of living in the same community for at least 10 years.

We can protect what has already worked by expanding policies like the Taxpayer Protection Law (known more widely as the Pacheco Law) at all levels of the government. Under the Pacheco Law, passed 25 year ago during the Weld administration, the state is mandated to ensure that money going towards private contractors be rigorously vetted to ensure that the state is actually seeing a cost benefit. And when the state must privatize services, contractors must be audited and compelled to ensure that taxpayer-funded contracts are paying good wages to a workforce that reflects the diversity of the state.

Meet the Author

Mariama White-Hammond

Pastor, New Roots AME Church, Dorchester
This week, as we remember the death of Dr. King, we are all challenged to think about what we can do to honor his legacy. It is not enough to have breakfasts where we come together across race. It is not even enough to have people of color represented in the some of the highest positions in corporations.  King spent the last days of his life fighting alongside everyday people fighting for a decent wage. If our corporate community really wants to honor his dream, their leadership must ensure that every worker from managers to administrators and to janitors receive the kind of wages, benefits, and working conditions that honor their human dignity. Those who are sitting atop a mountain of profits must take greater responsibility for how they got there and contribute their fair share to the public good.

Rev. Mariama White-Hammond is the pastor of New Roots AME Church in Dorchester and a Faith Fellow of the Green Justice Coalition.