Skip to main content

Federal contract workers deserve justice on pay

By William Lucy, Special to CNN
August 28, 2013 -- Updated 1405 GMT (2205 HKT)
Activists for fast food workers' pay use the same message used by Memphis sanitation workers, led by Martin Luther King.
Activists for fast food workers' pay use the same message used by Memphis sanitation workers, led by Martin Luther King.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • William Lucy was with MLK in Memphis supporting living wages for sanitation workers
  • Lucy: MLK killed on that trip, and his dream of economic opportunity still unmet
  • Americans struggle to make ends meet, he says, especially federal contract workers
  • Lucy: President Obama could easily require government contractors to pay a living wage

Editor's note: William Lucy is a civil rights and labor leader, who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

(CNN) -- In the spring of 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to join sanitation workers seeking better pay, fairer treatment and the right to form a union.

I was with Dr. King as he stood with workers, all African-American, all fighting years of labor repression and wages that relegated them to poverty. Dr. King was assassinated on that trip to Memphis. His death, just as the images of workers carrying signs reading, "I am a man," is forever seared in my memory.

Today, August 28, marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the site of Dr. King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech. As tens of thousands prepare to commemorate our nation's progress toward racial justice, it's worth remembering a central meaning of that march: economic opportunity.

Opinion: Did we really learn the lesson of the March on Washington?

William Lucy
William Lucy

The state of economic opportunity today is a far cry from Dr. King's vision. Increasingly, American workers are struggling to make ends meet. Each day they are forced to make impossible choices between feeding their families and keeping the lights on, paying for gas or buying a coat.

Income inequality has grown exponentially in recent years, as middle-class jobs that pay a decent wage have been replaced by part-time, low-wage work following the recession. All the while, corporations and CEOs rake in unimaginable sums.

Nowhere is this two-tiered capitalism more dire than within the hidden workforce employed by federal contractors. According to a recent study by Demos, a public policy think tank, nearly 2 million private sector employees working on behalf of America earn wages too low to support a family, making $12 or less per hour.

Income inequality has grown exponentially in recent years, as middle-class jobs that pay a decent wage have been replaced by part-time, low-wage work.
William Lucy

These are Americans who sweep the floors of our nation's capital, stitch our soldiers' uniforms and ensure quality care for the elderly and disabled, and yet they cannot afford necessities like food, housing and health care. Like the sanitation workers of Memphis, they are the backbone of our economy, and are in turn treated like second-class citizens.

Throngs mark 'I Have a Dream' anniversary

Dr. King stood with those on the picket line because he knew that struggles for racial and economic equality were inextricably bound. He championed economic opportunity and jobs knowing that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. In this way, the urgency of the current economic crisis must be understood as a civil rights imperative. People of color disproportionately occupy the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, mirroring the lack of opportunity that pervaded the mid-20th century.

These are Americans who sweep the floors of our nation's capital, stitch our soldiers' uniforms and ensure quality care for the elderly and disabled.
William Lucy

Just as Dr. King looked toward leaders in the nation's capital to better living standards, so too can workers turn their attention toward Washington. At the height of racial tension and mass mobilization in the '60s, the federal government took the lead in advancing equality. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson went beyond the Civil Rights Act of 1964, effectively ending racial discrimination in government contracting with the signing of an executive order.

President Barack Obama ought to respond to the crisis of inequality in similar fashion. He could -- today -- sign an executive order requiring government contractors to pay their employees higher wages. With a sweep of the pen, President Obama could honor Dr. King's legacy -- and help fulfill his dream -- by mandating fairness and justice.

It's fitting that the protests by low-wage workers spreading across the country adopt many of the same tactics as the Memphis sanitation workers, including the potent "I am a Man" message. Were Dr. King here today, I have little doubt he would join with the striking workers of federally contracted companies, fast-food giants and Wal-Mart. The struggle for labor rights and decent pay was central to the conviction that animated his life.

10 signposts on America's race journey

President Obama has promised to take executive action to improve the economy, circumventing a gridlocked Congress and raising the boats of millions of families. There is no better place to start than with working standards of federally contracted companies. More money in these workers' pockets will yield greater consumer spending, accelerated job growth and a more robust economy.

And there is no better time to do it. On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and at a time of record levels of economic inequality, President Obama should follow in the footsteps of his civil rights predecessors. When he speaks on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he should outline an executive order that would raise standards for low-wage employees working on behalf of our country. Doing so is no panacea for continuing racial and economic discrimination, but is an important step toward realizing Dr. King's unfulfilled dream.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Lucy.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 20, 2014 -- Updated 1624 GMT (0024 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT