Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis, Tennessee, to march with the city’s striking black sanitation workers. Wages were bad, and conditions were so unsafe that workers were seriously injured or even killed while using the trash compactors of their trucks. The city of Memphis, their employer, refused to do better; city officials refused to act to improve their wages or safety. So they took matters into their own hands and went on strike, demanding basic dignity and civil rights on the job.
In the final years of his life, King shifted his work to focus on improving work and pay conditions for people regardless of the color of their skin. Half a century after he was assassinated in Memphis following his march with those sanitation workers, the fight for civil rights continues to intersect with the struggle for workers’ rights.
Organizing a union is still one of the most powerful ways for workers of color to win respect at work. I know this because I am organizing a union, and it’s for the same reason the workers in Memphis did: I Am A Man.
I work full time for United Airlines in catering operations at Newark Liberty International Airport. I’m a driver, which means that I drive lift trucks to cater United’s planes. I also unload and dispose of international waste. My co-workers in United’s catering kitchens in Newark, Houston, Denver, Honolulu and Cleveland are overwhelmingly people of color and immigrants, and we do a very important job for United. If we don’t cater the planes, they can’t take off ― but we’ve been left behind. Unlike pilots, flight attendants and ramp workers, catering workers are the only frontline United employees who don’t have a union, but we’re working hard to change that. We know we deserve the equality, safety and respect of a union job.
I grew up in Elizabeth and Plainfield, New Jersey, which are outside of Newark in the New York City metro area — one of the most expensive in the country. United doesn’t pay enough for me and my co-workers to keep up with the cost of living ― some United catering workers earn as little as $10 per hour ― and we have to make hard choices because of that. I live with my mother in a small Elizabeth apartment where the rent is almost half of my monthly pay. When you add that to my other basic expenses, I don’t have much left. I work for an airline that reported $2.1 billion in profits in 2017, and I can’t save. I can’t pay for education. I want to further my options in life, but the low pay I earn at the airport makes that impossible.
Before you ask why I don’t simply find a job that pays more, let me tell you: In my community, there aren’t many options for work outside of the local mall and Newark airport. United is my best option, and it needs to be better. And I’m not alone: There are many young black workers in United’s catering kitchens, and we’re organizing for the security of having a good career — not the low-wage, dead-end jobs that exist now.
“If we don’t cater the planes, they can’t take off ― but we’ve been left behind.”
By organizing a union, workers of color have a chance to change the lopsided power dynamics in both our company and our country. Today, the higher up you get on the corporate food chain, the fewer people of color you see. But we’re taking the power back and putting it into the people’s hands. That’s how we’ll uplift and empower our communities, and make the space for the youth mentorship programs, better after-school programs and arts programs that we need. It starts with recognizing our value, paying us accordingly and respecting our family time. And, we know it works.
Across the hospitality industry in jobs traditionally held by workers of color, we’ve seen how unionizing has advanced basic human rights. Through collective bargaining, workers have won anti-discrimination language in their contracts, secured groundbreaking health benefits for workers living with HIV and AIDS and enshrined cutting-edge protections against sexual harassment at work. Union housekeepers in several states, including Illinois and California, have won wages of more than twice the national median pay, turning low-wage jobs into real careers. And just a few weeks ago we learned that in New York and New Jersey, airport workers like me are on our way to securing the $19 per hour minimum wage that we’ve been fighting for.
Too often, King’s legacy is twisted to be safe and marketable, but his work was anything but that. Working to advance civil rights in America has never been “safe.” When I was young, I watched footage of dogs attacking people, and of police getting away with brutalizing those taking action for civil rights. I wondered then how they could get away with it, but as I got older I realized that, in many ways, not much had changed. There’s still police brutality. Workers can still be stuck at the bottom, disrespected. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to fight for change. Civil rights and workers’ rights continue to be bound together.
As a kid, I was intrigued by King and Malcolm X. I wanted to learn everything I could about them. I watched movies about why they marched, and now this is my opportunity to do something in King’s footsteps. That’s why I was in Memphis on April 4, along with over 2,000 UNITE HERE union members, to celebrate King’s life and his legacy of solidarity with workers. I was proud to march this week. I’m even more proud to walk the walk at home, as I fight for a union ― for myself, for my co-workers and for my community.
Lindell Lawrence works as a catering operations driver for United Airlines at Newark Liberty International Airport. He lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey.