Labor Day is an opportunity to ask whether the economy is working for the people who make this country work.

The question and potential answers were frequently on the mind of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed in Memphis defending workers’ right to fair pay, unionizing and respect.

While the United States has enjoyed an 18-month run on low joblessness, according to the Economic Policy Institute, that is not enough to address the loss of leverage workers have been experiencing for decades. This shows up in right-to-work laws and a federal minimum wage of $7.25, which does not cover the basic costs it was meant for when first instituted in 1938 at .25 cents an hour.

Workers bow their heads while a blessing is offered before lunch at the 2018 Labor Day celebration at the AFSCME downtown Memphis office. Photo by Andrea Morales.

In 2019, 18 states started the year with a higher minimum wage with three, plus D.C., slated to do so this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Tennessee is not among them.

In terms of who’s winning the wage race, white men have enjoyed higher rates of wage growth, 6.6% in 2015–2019, according to Valerie Wilson and Elise Gould, economists at EPI. Black women have experienced the lowest rates of wage growth in the past five years at 4.7%. Black men follow at 5%, and white women fall behind white men at 6.4%.

“Even among those with a college degree, wage growth over the last five years has been weaker and more uneven, increasing gaps between men and women and black and white workers,” according to Wilson and Gould.

During his lifetime — particularly when he was advocating for striking Memphis sanitation workers — King addressed many of the issues that pose challenges in today’s American workforce. Following are some of the ideas he planted about what’s at stake in achieving economic justice, which includes justice at work.

1 “The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.” — King during a Dec. 11, 1961 speech to the AFL-CIO

2 “You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.” —King on April 2, 1968

3You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” — King, to a crowd gathered at Mason Temple on March 18, 1968.

4 According to scholar and filmmaker Michael Honey, King made an effort to amplify collective bargaining rights and the collection of dues when he turned his sights on the ’68 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike:

“Let it be known everywhere that along with wages and all of the other securities that you are struggling for, you are also struggling for the right to organize and be recognized.”

5 “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. It is supported by Southern segregationists who are trying to keep us from achieving our civil rights and our right of equal job opportunity. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone. Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped.” — King on April 3, 1968

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