His call for service and economic justice half a century ago
echoes a timeless message for Americans today
by Catherine J. Rourke
Published January 15, 2008
Updated January 15, 2014
We must recognize that we can't solve our problems now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power ... this means a revolution of values and other things. The whole structure of American life must be changed.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I Have a Dream” speech
Everybody has a dream.
For many Americans, it once included a home of one’s own, a good job with decent pay, affordable health care and a sense of security that would carry them into retirement. Now, with that dream shattered by a blizzard of pink slips, foreclosures, bankruptcies, lost benefits, frozen wages and mounting medical bills, people are wondering what happened to the American dream.
This year, on Martin Luther King Day, Americans pause to reflect on what would have been the 85th birthday of a man whose dream helped to pave the way for the civil rights and liberties of all people.
America desperately needed Martin Luther King Jr. to right some wrongs nearly half a century ago, but now his legacy strikes a deep chord in the hearts of the downtrodden, perhaps more poignantly than ever. From homeless Vets to the working poor, many yearn for the emergence of a conscious leader like King who can advocate on their behalf and voice their concerns about the ever-widening gap between the have-mores and the have-nots
For all of us, this day resounds a call to service in the echo of King's timeless words.
In his short life, King brought to the forefront the atrocities that were tarnishing America’s reputation as a democracy. While most Americans know about his efforts on behalf of civil liberty and racial equality, many don’t realize, fifty years later, that socioeconomic justice for all Americans represented a major part of his dream.
King envisioned a better America – where one could rise above the impositions of gender, race and class and receive living wages, affordable health care and a good education.
He gained notoriety as a young minister in 1955 while leading a transportation boycott on behalf of Rosa Parks, the black seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated Alabama bus. For the next 12 years, he led endless campaigns in the streets of America and on the steps of the Capitol, not just for civil rights but for the sake of all people, especially the poor.
"What good is the right to sit at a lunch counter," King said, "if one can't afford the price of a meal? There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he is a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer.”
His protest tactics incorporated a spiritual approach, with books, speeches and nonviolent marches for social justice. He adhered to Ghandi’s path of action – the satyahraha, or “firmness in truth” – which combines civil disobedience and constructive service.
King knew fear and looked it squarely in the eye as he faced verbal and physical assault and even jail, admitting he was often afraid. “But, in that darkness,” he said, “I found a radiant star of unity.”
King died in 1968 while campaigning for the working rights of trash collectors in Memphis, Tenn., leaving America with a lamp unto its feet and a road map for positive social change.
Sanitation workers' strike, Memphis, Tenn., 1968
America once again faces a regressing onslaught of atrocities shaking the very foundations of democracy – Wall Street greed, a health-care holocaust, an epidemic of unemployment and a new Great Depression. Amidst such challenges, we are called to keep King’s dream alive and follow his example of building rather than destroying.
This is a different country than it was in the 1960s when King called on the nation to search its soul. Yet American society is now better off in some ways better and worse off in others than the one he tried to improve.
While today's social issues are subtler and harder to confront directly, they insidiously persist despite King’s and other activists’ efforts. Black workers are still paid less than equally qualified white workers, and blacks are arrested more often. Latinos similarly experience discrimination while Mexican immigrants face a barrage of imposing issues in Arizona and across the nation.
A simple stroll down any toy store aisle shockingly proves that gender roles haven’t changed much since King’s era. Girls still play with toy vacuum cleaners while society wonders why a female has never sat in the Oval Office. Likewise, boys still play combat games with violent toys given to them by those who remain appalled by the loss of innocent civilian lives in another foreign war.
Political leaders preach for a return to morality and then cut social welfare programs in favor of military spending. To that, King would say exactly what he did nearly 40 years ago in his book, Where Do We Go from Here? Chaos or Community:
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
But perhaps the most disturbing setback revolves around wages, an issue that King addressed prolifically in both written and spoken words.
Wages: a national disgrace
In his “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, King called for “a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living.” He believed that America’s moral values called for a society in which all workers could share in the prosperity that they help create.
Since then, the federal minimum wage reveals a sordid and shocking history, one that would greatly disappoint King if he were alive today. Not only did it fail to reflect steady increases, but its spending power also decreased quite dramatically since King’s time.
Wages remained a passionate priority of King's, so let's pause here to take a hard look at America's failure to provide living wages in the 21st century -- an issue that would have King pounding the podium in speeches today as the wage debate continues heatedly across the nation.
The first minimum wage of 25 cents an hour, established in 1938, had increased to $1.60 at the time of King’s death in 1968. Twenty years later, minimum wages had only risen by one dollar and 75 cents to $3.35.
At its peak in 1968, the minimum wage was equivalent to 54 percent of average hourly wage in the private sector. According to the Congressional Research Service, it has plummeted to 36 percent.
Then and Now: little has changed in 80 years
If the minimum wage freeze isn't bad enough, then we have the frozen tundra of the appalling sub-minimum wage. We shudder to imagine what King's response would be to the plight of food service workers in these times... not just fast-food employees but even those in the slower-food gourmet dining rooms with fine china and linens. Here's why.
In 1982 the Reagan administration reinforced the Fair Labor Standards Act, reducing the wages of food service workers to a sub-minimum standard, or half of the federal minimum, and an added tax on tips. While some of these workers, such as food servers and bartenders, make up the difference with tips, they are taxed on 15 percent of their food-and-beverage sales.
Even if they receive no tip whatsoever, restaurant workers still have to pay a tax on 15 percent of the food check because the IRS presumes every each and every customer leaves a food server a 15-percent gratuity. Therefore, when reviewing the state-by-state wage list at the end of the story, keep in mind that food servers in most of those states earn HALF of that state's posted wage BY LAW.
Even when performing non-tipped job duties, such the scrubbing and mopping janitorial functions restaurants require of every food server, these workers still receive a sub-minimum wage. Therefore, when your waiter cleans the toilet before serving your meal, he earns half of your state's minimum wage while doing so. In 22 states, that means food servers earn $2.13 an hour -- before taxes --to pull rodents out of the restaurant grease trap.
Some states have established their own wage provisions for tipped workers. Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington mandate the full minimum wage for tipped workers. This means that a waiter at Denny’s in Santa Fe earns a fraction of the hourly wage ($2.13 in New Mexico) as his colleague at the same restaurant chain in Seattle ($9.32 in Washington).
The same wage disparity applies for millions of other tipped workers such as baggage porters, car wash workers, baristas, bellhops and salon employees. Food service represents the single largest private sector workforce with more than 12 million tipped employees. Do the math and it adds up to poverty for many workers and big profits for their employers with rock-bottom payrolls. While a minority of restaurant employees in exclusive urban establishments receive generous tips, the family poverty rate for food servers is three times the average for all other workers.
The sub-minimum wage is also conveniently exempt from federal minimum-wage increases but varies from state to state. Therefore, the average $2.13 sub-minimum wage for foodservice workers in most states has remained frozen at that deplorable level for 23 years, reducing its “value” to less than 30 percent of the federal minimum wage.
How is THAT possible?
Just ask any lobbyist of the fiercely powerful National Restaurant Association wining and dining your senator while servers earn crumbs to clear the fine white tablecloth of any food crumbs that spill from their sordid wheeling-and-dealing mouths. The restaurant industry lobby convinced Congress in 1991 to exempt the federal tipped-worker minimum wage of $2.13 per hour from any increases.
Ditto for migrant farm workers and other employees whose industries cleverly managed to maneuver themselves into the sub-minimum wage category as restaurant moguls did. While their CEOs and top-brass administrators earn six- and seven-figure incomes, their payroll expenses remain rock-bottom thanks to the sub-minimum wage.
For those who qualify the sub-minimum wage for food service workers based on tips, we urge you to walk in a waiter's shoes for just one shift without a meal break or chance to use the restroom. Then, as you go home rubbing your burning feet after spending late weekend nights missing out on family functions and celebrations, reconsider tips as a form of the good old-fashioned "shift differential pay" once bestowed to workers who faced more challenging working hours, unpalatable tasks and harder physical circumstances.
Next, add up what it will cost you in taxes out of pocket for that party of six that failed to leave you a tip on a $200 check...
We think King would have agreed that sub-minimum wages should be outlawed and declared obsolete in the 21st century, since workers can no longer rely on their employers for health care coverage or that extinct benefit once known as a retirement pension. And because we abolished slavery over a century ago.
"Millions of people are making inadequate wages,” King said. “Not only do they work in our hospitals, they work in our hotels, our laundries and in domestic service. But no labor is menial unless you're not getting adequate wages. What makes the work menial is the income."
For more information and proposed solutions on tipped worker sub-minimum wages, see “Restoring the Minimum Wage For America’s Tipped Workers” and “Waiting for Change: The Federal $2.13 Subminimum Wage.”
Food server wages then and now: NOTHING has changed
1991 - $2.13/hour 2014 - $2.13/hour
A long overdue raise
On January 14, 2014, Congress announced a proposed increase of the minimum wage to $10.10. Known as the Fair Minimum Wage Act, it was introduced in the House by Democrat George Miller and in the Senate by Sen. Tom Harkin.
Some economists attribute this to recent Wal-mart employee strikes and the minestrone of fast-food worker protests last year calling for $15-per-hour pay rates and the right to organize via unions in more than 100 cities. It appears that American workers need union organization and support now more than ever in an era when the labor movement hit the scuttle bucket along with jobs, benefits and retirement dreams.
The proposed legislation would phase in the wage increase to $8.20 an hour in the first year, then to $9.15 the following year and $10.10 by the third year. Therefore, workers don't receive the full increase until 2017 -- if it passes this year.
That means minimum-wage workers could see a rise in pay from $15,000 to $21,000 annually, which would put a family of three just above the poverty line. Exactly where government social services want people, in order to get them off the subsidy coffers.
The proposal also raises the current $2.13 sub-minimum wage for workers who receive tips. Amazing. The rate would increase for one year to a whopping $3 an hour. Then the base would be adjusted annually until it matches 70 percent of the federal minimum wage, a process that could require six years or more. Such a bright and rosy financial future for America's 12 million food service workers....
Hmmm... Perhaps the wage proposal is just a Democratic ploy to win votes? Or just a government ploy to get millions of people off food stamps and free health care? As investigative journalists, it's our job to read in between the lines to question if the increase will really offer workers any substantial benefit. After all, it is an election year.
While still nowhere near a "living wage," the proposal represents an increase of $2.85 per hour over the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 and is backed by testimony from at least 75 top economists, all rallying to give working Americans a long overdue raise. As such, it represent a significant increase in light of minimum-wage history.
Let's take a closer look at wage history on this Martin Luther King Day.
In 1997, the federal minimum wage came to a slamming halt at $4.25, where it would remain stagnant for 10 years – a dismal decade in American wage history during which the Bush administration also cut overtime pay in 2003 for 8 million minimum-wage workers.
King was certainly rolling in his grave then. But it gets much worse.
Federal Minimum Wage by the Numbers
Current: $7.25 per hour
Date of last wage increase: July 24, 2009
Year the last increase was approved by Congress: 2007
Workers earning this rate: 17 million
By gender: Nearly 60 percent female
Proposed in 2014: $10.10 per hour
Timeline: If approved, by 2015; in full effect by 2017
See the chart at the end of this story for the Observer's "National Wage Disgrace" list
of all current state minimum wages in 2014
Meanwhile, Congress approved its own annual pay hikes while rejecting the Fair Minimum Wage Act dozens of times for the working majority, giving itself seven raises during a 9-year span and denying low-income workers their own desperately needed raises.
For an entire decade, from 1997 to 2007, the minimum wage remained frozen at $5.15 an hour
Finally, in 2007, the ice broke and the minimum climbed a bleak 90 cents. In 70 years, the minimum wage had only risen by $4.90. And, 40 years after King’s passing, the wage had only increased by a shockingly low $2.65.
King never dreamed that, five decades later, the American minimum wage would rank the lowest among the world’s industrialized nations and that its value would decrease 41 percent while the cost of living skyrocketed.
He never dreamed that, in the 1980s, the wages of millions of food service and agricultural workers would be reduced to half of the federal minimum and then frozen for another 23 years, with these workers excluded from earning a minimum wage in the 21st century by an act of Congress.
King never dreamed that, four decades later, more than 28 million workers would earn less than $9 an hour. Nor did he dream that, four decades later, 36 million Americans would live below the poverty level. And another 47 million would remain without any access whatsoever to medical care (including the journalist writing this article).
King's dream has been broken.
Land of opportunity?
The grim economic statistics released by the U.S. Dept. of Labor suggest that America remains in dire need of King’s prophetic proposals for economic justice.
The number of unemployed Americans has reached an all-time high, the highest since the Great Depression, while unemployment benefit claims rises to staggering numbers. Congress allocated more than $700 billion of taxpayers’ money to bail out Wall Street in recent years while the value of homes in cities across the nation plummeted nearly 20 percent.
In light of wage statistics and congressional track records, how many more working folks will join the cardboard-sign set of the nation's homeless leper colonies floating about the street corners of every city and town?
Less than 25 percent of the nation’s workers have jobs that pay at least $16 an hour with benefits. The end result is that 75 percent of American workers struggle in jobs that don’t provide a living wage, pension or health care. The remaining 23 percent dream of having some kind of job, and the other 2 percent skim the fat off the top of the wage pyramid.
“Unfortunately, life is getting tougher for the average American worker, not better,” declared Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), as if this was breaking news for most Americans.
And then there are 17 million workers struggling to make ends meet on the minimum wage. If life had become tougher for the average American worker, as Sen. Schumer implied, then it had to be excruciating for those making minimum wage.
These wage-earners are mostly adults whose earnings provide more than half of their household income. Many are minorities and more than 60 percent are women, including 760,000 single mothers.
In 2006 they earned $206 per week, or $10,712 annually, before taxes – $8,650 less than the amount needed to lift a family of four out of poverty. They paid a 7.65 percent combined Social Security and Medicare tax on every dollar earned, in addition to other state and city taxes.
Let them eat cake
Meanwhile, their CEOs went laughing all the way to the bank.
Corporate profits rose 87 percent while wages fell steadily last year. The average compensation for CEOs in 1980 was 40 times greater than the average worker in their companies. Today it is more than 500 times. As CEO compensation grew 23 percent, the national average hourly wage of $24.17 has seen a mere three-cent increase since 2003. [See Dept. of Labor Report Dec. 2013.]
According to The New York Times, pharmaceutical czar Sidney Taurel, CEO of Eli Lilly, earned $12.5 million – a paltry sum by many CEO salaries – the equivalent income of 1,167 minimum-wagers. In addition, he received $7.04 million in stock and options, $4 million in incentives, and $215,044 in other compensation, which included $107,105 for use of the company's jet.
Just as Taurel retired in 2008 with a golden parachute worth $30 million, the company announced major cutbacks in retirement and health care benefits for 22,000 employees — and raised insurance premiums by more than 50 percent. At the same time, the New England Journal of Medicine claimed that the company had “suppressed negative clinical trial data” for some of its most profitable products, including Prozac, the world’s most widely prescribed antidepressant.
King had words for such circumstances, which now appear eerily written for Lilly and its workers:
“There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, as well as profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, then the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.”
The call for living wages
Shortly before his death, King pressured the government to redirect its budgetary priorities to support living wages rather than waging war.
King often said that low income makes work menial. Today that menial income is no longer limited to farms and garment factories. It includes big box chains and supercenters, large companies, academia, prominent think tanks and newsrooms, as well as hospitals, hotels, restaurants and retail stores. It now includes white-collar office administrators, who often toil 12-hour days without overtime and without proper breaks – if they’re lucky enough to still have a job.
King’s speeches and books prompt Americans to examine their core values regarding work and income: Does running a successful business hinge on paying low wages? Does being an underpaid worker mean living in fear of retribution for speaking up at work? Do we engage in civic discourse and community meetings to try to make a difference in our lives instead of just whining about how bad things are? Are we willing to give up Monday Night Football and “Desperate Housewives” to do so?
Does being a medical provider today require you to violate the Hippocratic Oath by denying care to an individual without the means to afford your services? Has the insurance industry forced you to become a bookkeeper with an assembly-line practice, shuttling patients through your office like cattle with appointments that hardly last 15 minutes? Do you listen to your patients and their symptoms, or are you simply looking at the numbers on lab reports? Are you a practitioner focused on healing or on profit? Are you upholding Hippocrates or hypocrisy?
As Americans, do we believe in democracy until it means giving up our own agendas? When addressing wage issues, it means no longer remaining consumed with our individual slice of the pie but with a piece of it for everybody.
Putting words into action
If King was alive today, what would he say about stagnant wages and underpaid workers in the face of multibillion-dollar Wall Street bailouts? He would most likely advise us to look within our hearts, individually and collectively, to resolve our current dilemmas and find the moral responsibility to raise all the boats, not just the yachts.
In a 1967 speech, King said:
“Let us lift up those who live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. I look forward to the day when all who work for a living will be one...the day when we bring into full realization the American dream...a dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few; a dream of a nation where all our resources are held not for ourselves alone but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity.”
Strategic action begins with individual accountability, by asking ourselves critical questions: Am I concerned merely with my own needs? What am I willing to sacrifice for positive social change? How do I treat others? What is the foundation of my belief systems? Are they steeped in scarcity and deprivation?
Americans are all sailing on the same ship. When there’s a storm, it affects all passengers, whether they’re eating steak in First Class or peanuts in Third Class. When the ship starts to sink, First Class will go down with steerage, unless people press those at the helm to alter their course while looking within their hearts at their own underlying operating platforms.
Health care represents just one disparate system teaching America that hard lesson. The financial system, with the stock market and Ponzi-style Madoff schemes, is another. Suddenly, as familiar paradigms of being, doing and having disintegrate, many people find themselves clinging to life rafts full of holes on a sinking Titanic.
In his “I Have a Dream” speech, King said:
"We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights … which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can't solve our problems now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power ... this means a revolution of values and other things. The whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and (we) must put (our) own house in order."
Wage campaigns: putting the house in order
According to Let Justice Roll, a national nonpartisan coalition of faith, community, labor and business organizations, nearly 400 faith leaders from all 50 states have already endorsed their campaign in support of raising the federal minimum wage. The group’s policy advisers claim it requires far more than $10 per hour to match the buying power of the 1968 minimum wage.
"Our economy wouldn't be in such a mess if wages had not fallen so far behind the cost of living and income inequality had not grown to levels last seen on the eve of the Great Depression," said Holly Sklar, senior policy adviser for Let Justice Roll and co-author of A Just Minimum Wage: Good for Workers, Business and Our Future. "As we are seeing so painfully, an economy fueled by rising debt rather than rising wages is a house of cards."
The wage initiative would give thousands of workers – 58 percent of whom are women and 25 percent are single mothers – a severely needed raise. While a far cry from a living wage, it represents one small step in the right direction and a healing gesture for America’s struggling workforce.
Rev. Steve Copley, chair of Let Justice Roll, said in a recent statement: "It is immoral that the minimum wage is worth less now than it was in 1968, the year Dr. Martin Luther King was killed while fighting for living wages for sanitation workers.” He added: “It's also bad for the economy. Minimum wage dollars go right back to local business through spending on food, health care and other necessities."
Let Justice Roll policy advisors claim that most of the ten occupations projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to have the largest employment growth through 2016, such as retail salespersons, fast-food workers, home health aides and janitors, have disproportionate numbers of minimum-wage workers.
These also represent the large majority of job “opportunities” posted in classified ads and unemployment offices in Yavapai County, Ariz., where The Sedona Observer is produced. The paper’s Workplace and Invisible Sedona pages further probe the disturbing predominance of such low-wage jobs in a county that has one of the highest price housing markets and cost of living indexes in all of Arizona.
King would probably urge us to resurrect his Poor People's Campaign by supporting these living wage initiatives. And he would encourage support of federal legislation, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, by telling us to send letters to political representatives, meet with congressmen and religious leaders and exercising our rights on the job.
Solutions for change
King believed that change starts with building rather than destroying and that the crusade for decent wages must be won not on a battlefield, but in people’s hearts.
He strived to forge a common ground on which all people could join together to address community issues. If he was here now, he would remind us that we have to release our complacency. Americans can no longer lie around like sleeping dogs hoping that things will change or that elected officials will toss them a bone.
That means turning off the TV and coming together as a community in constructive, strategic, solution-oriented dialogue that embraces all walks of life and gives every voice a chance to be heard in a state of grace.
“A nation can flounder as readily in the face of moral bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy. Unity is the great need of the hour,” King said.
Change also begins with media willing to investigate workplace and business practices while acknowledging the voices of the downtrodden by telling their stories – instead of neglecting these reports out of fear of offending advertisers with content that opposes their financial interests.
Finally, King would encourage us all to look within ourselves and examine our belief systems, especially those that lead to the crippling paralysis of fear and mediocrity.
Spiritual versus financial approaches
No one can deny that we are in crisis, especially when it comes to low wages. King would coax us to identify its spiritual root cause – one based on lack of trust in a higher power and on fear. The turnaround begins with the dismantling of our own scarcity-based mentalities and self-centered agendas.
King believed that prosperity would result not just from a change in wage laws but from a spiritual shift within ourselves…when we allow ourselves to get out of our heads, where fear lurks, and into our hearts, where courage soars... when we end the fragmentation that divides us as a community… when we realize it’s not about personal loss or the demise of corporate profits but about everyone prospering – employees as well as their employers.
Even the Bible says: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads the grain; the laborer is worthy of his wages." (Timothy 5:18). King directed Americans to act upon that moral responsibility by creating new paradigms to uphold living wages, integrity and dignity in the workplace for the benefit of all.
When we commit to an ethical life, we are no longer ruled by the changing conditions of the outside world. When we identify a thread of meaning in our lives, we find new definitions of happiness. When we exchange scarcity consciousness with trust in a guiding force, then prosperity graces our world. When we serve others, we find that our own lives flourish. It is this spiritual foundation of courage, of replacing consumption with compassion, which King’s legacy calls for us to establish.
Americans can start this process by joining together in building positive relationships among all strata of society – business owners, political leaders and the low-wage workers – stepping outside of the box and out of the boat so that together everyone can walk on water.
Service: living the dream
The question then becomes for each individual: “How can I best serve others?” King’s legacy also reminds us of this call to service, which he regarded as the great equalizer. “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve,” he said.
Are we willing to step out of the comfort zone, or are we going to wait for the next American debacle or disaster to spur us into action? Are we waiting for some messiah to rescue us? Perhaps it is time for individual leadership.
Together we can make our community, county, state and country a better place for all citizens, in accordance with King’s dream – if we get off our cell phones, out of our cars and cubicles and off the couch and shift into strategic action. Like King and Rosa Parks, we can turn rage into “cou-rage,” one person at a time, one step at a time, by vowing to always stand in our truth and be willing to walk our talk.
One way that leaders and citizens in Arizona's Verde Valley can demonstrate this is by coming together to designate a public shelter for the homeless since one currently does not exist. Sleep is, after all, a birthright.
In his book, Strength to Love, King wrote:
“True compassion is more than just flinging a coin to a beggar. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.”
In this manner we can begin to clear the social debris of a heinous system that thrives on racism, poverty, class oppression and war. Together, with the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, we can focus on service and turn it into the kind of force King hoped it would become. This was his dream, one that we must keep alive.
The holiday in King’s honor should not just represent a day off; it must be a day ON to continue his dream of peace, justice and equality fueled by positive, nonviolent action.
Surely America awaits an inspiring new leader like King, one who has compassion and understanding for the reality of the working poor. But we cannot wait; it must start with each of us. Perhaps the greatest way to honor him is by performing individual acts of kindness through service to others. In doing so, we can embody that dream and transform it into a positive new reality for all Americans.
Catherine J. Rourke is an award-winning journalist focusing on socioeconomic, labor, work-life balance and social advocacy issues. This article includes excerpts from a speech she delivered at Yavapai College, in Prescott, Ariz., on Jan. 16, 2006, at the Diversity Alliance of Central Yavapai County’s Martin Luther King Celebration.
Catherine quit her job in mainstream media to launch the ad-free, nonprofit Observer and write about the issues sorely neglected and improperly reported in the press -- health care reform, the new Great Depression and the downtrodden, forgotten citizens of America -- the homeless, the uninsured and the unemployed. She publishes the Observer out of pocket in her spare time while working as a freelance editor and writer.
MINIMUM WAGE, MAXIMUM SHAME
2014 MINIUMUM WAGES BY STATE
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF. $10.74; SAN JOSE CALIF., $10.15
WASHINGTON $9.32, OREGON $9.10
California: $8.00 (increase to $9.00 on July 1, 2014 and $10.00 on January 1, 2016)
- San Francisco: $10.74
- San Jose: $10.15
Connecticut: $8.70 ($9.00 effective January 1, 2015)
New Hampshire: $7.25
New Jersey: $8.25
New Mexico: $7.50
- Albuquerque: $8.60
Nevada: $7.25 for employees who receive qualifying health benefits, $8.25 for employees who do not receive qualifying health benefits.
New York: $8.00 ($8.75 on December 31, 2014, $9.00 on December 31, 2015)
North Carolina: $7.25
North Dakota: $7.25
Puerto Rico: $7.25
Rhode Island: $8.00
South Carolina: $7.25
South Dakota: $7.25
West Virginia: $7.25
Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now
American Rights at Work
Interfaith Worker Justice
Let Justice Roll
Living Wage Resource Center
Universal Living Wage
Let Justice Roll reports:
Raising the Minimum Wage in Hard Times
Policy Points: Raise the Minimum Wage
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Jan 15 10:12:03
When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968 while in Memphis to support the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) sanitation workers’ strike, he was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign for social and economic justice. He believed that economic security, as well as racial equality, was a basic human right.
In many ways, the Poor People’s Campaign is still with us.
Today in Arizona, there are nearly 900,000 people living in poverty, of which 350,000 are children under the age of 18. The number of working poor in Arizona is 2 million. In October 2008, more than 700,000 people were receiving food stamps − a 21-percent increase in participation since October 2007.
In November 2008, nearly 90,000 households received an Emergency Food Box through the Association of Arizona Food Banks member food banks, a 34-percent increase since November 2007. With record home foreclosures, restrictions in the credit market and increasing gasoline and food costs, all Arizonans are impacted by the economy.
Economic hardship means more demand for essential safety net services. The Arizona Health Care Containment System (AHCCCS), foods stamps, unemployment claims and other caseload numbers are rising significantly. This is not a time to cut critical health and human services which contribute to the economy and quality of life. As the economy worsens, the government must enable individuals and families to meet their basic needs, regain their stability and support their return to the workforce.
The Martin Luther King holiday is a time to reflect on our moral obligation to condemn social and economic systems that rob people of dignity and equal opportunity. It is a time to remember the philosophy of nonviolent action for creating positive social change. The holiday invites us to act – in a way that reaches out to those in most need and in a way that will have our elected officials understand that investment in human capital pays great dividends.
To commemorate the birth of Dr. King in a way that does not mock his legacy, I would suggest that our lawmakers, as they consider plans and proposals to deal with the state budget deficit, measure funding reductions with health and human services against the yardstick of King’s hope and dream.
Former AFSCME labor leader
2004 Democratic candidate/District 1
Arizona House of Representatives
Prescott Valley, Ariz.
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EDITOR'S POSTSCRIPT - JANUARY 21, 2014
So many browsers and subscribers responded to the e-mail in which we were re-circulating this article with our four-year perspective that they encouraged us to print the contents here as a postscript to the original story. Readers spoke, and we listened. Here is what we disseminated in that original e-mail with the link to this Martin Luther King tribute on January 20-21, 2014.
It may sound like a broken record, but the original Martin Luther King tribute, which was first published in The Sedona Observer in January 2008, could have been written now several years later.
Because little, if anything, has changed while some things remain stagnant, such as wages, and others have gotten worse -- like the cost of food and gas. And medical and dental care, if your lucky enough to have any means of affordable access.
In this article, we noted that the federal minimum wage was set for an increase to $7.25 per hour in 2009 and decried it as a shabby insult in the face of the new Great Depression, as Americans faced joblessness, rising cost of living, foreclosures and lack of affordable health care. In the original article, we supported the call for a $10 per hour minimum wage by 2010. That year came and went with wages remaining at their absymal low.
Now, six years later, that federal minimum wage remains unchanged, despite higher unemployment figures, the rising cost of food and gas, the increasing numbers of homeless people and all the foreclosures that provided handsome profits for newspaper advertising coffers.
Take a look at your income and then compare it to the pile of bills likely sitting on your table, if you're like 99% of most Americans. Then take a look at the frightening state of health care in America, where the numbers of uninsured and underinsured citizens have increased dramatically since this article was written four years ago.
Take a look at your health insurance premiums and medical deductibles, if you are "lucky" enough to have them [what a concept!]. Then take a look at how much you spent last year on basic health care, such as doctor office visits for the common flu or lab tests and general dentistry.
Then ask yourself if there is any aspect of your health being neglected right now due to unaffordability. Dentistry? Menopause? Insomnia? Depression? Mental health? Maybe even a life-threatening illness such as cancer or something as simple as a migraine or hair loss?
If you are like most Americans who are suffering from a general lack of dental coverage or from one of the great new profit-making epidemics -- diabetes, depression, anxiety, sexual dysfunction, insomnia, sleep apnea, uterine disorders, breast cancer and most cancers in general, all being addressed with overpriced and often toxic pharmaceutical drugs -- then the words we wrote four years ago in this tribute to Dr. King will resonate even more poignantly for you.
Which is exactly why we are circulating it again. Even though King's words seem to be falling on deaf ears, we hope they may inspire just one person to action.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world receiving care laughs at America's medical debacle where citizens are required to feed the health care greed machine. The Observer believes this will go down in history as the "Great American Genocide" due to all the lives lost and increasing maladies among its citizens. Everywhere we look, we observer more and more missing teeth as Americans flock in droves to Mexico for basic dental care. For those who can afford the luxury, "medical tourism" is thriving.
We think Dr. King would not only be horrified at the deterioration of social services in America, but he'd also be leading the movement to protest at insurance companies, hospitals, doctors' offices and other medical facilities to demand care for all people and all conditions. We also believe he would share the Observer's sentiments about Big Pharma and its big profits.
While the article originally stated that America needed a new Martin Luther King to rally us all to speak truth to power, the Observer holds that we can no longer wait in this era for new "messiahs" to unite us; change must begin within each of us on an individual level. Perhaps the Occupy Wall St. movement represents the singlemost best thing that Dr. King would commend us for since this article was written. Along with any ongoing health care initiatives and legislative movements, as fledgling and floundering as they may be.
So speak truth to power in YOUR daily life as Dr. King's legacy asks us to do. And never ever let go of the dream for a better life, with liberty, HEALTH CARE and happiness for all. Let each of us become a Martin Luther King, even if it simply means taking a stand against runaway power or greed, however it shows up in your world.
On Friday, I spoke my truth to a medical doctor who tried and failed to prescribe a dangerous pharmaceutical. She was infuriated by my soft and gently spoken refusal because I represented the "one who got away" as she lost her bonus commission from Big Pharma for the unfilled prescription and because it defied her god-like authority and training.
I terminated her on the spot as my medical provider and am considering the cancellation of my coverage that only covers dangerous drugs. One naturopathic doctor told me: "If they cover it, it will probably kill you or harm you." So I will find better ways to put the "care" back in my health, even though I currently lack the financial means to seek proper natural and noninvasive alternatives.
I think Dr. King would be proud. See how you can make him proud in your life and keep the dream alive. Happy Martin Luther King Day!
And thanks to all of you for your support of the Observer. Stay tuned for many exciting articles, letters and essays from readers, plus book reviews and other riveting content.
Editor and Journalist
January 20, 2014
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