A Call to Justice: Martin Luther King, Jr., Economic Equality and Madison Area Workers
“They treated us like old furniture,” said Juan as he was discussing how he was fired from his job of several years by a Taco Bell in Madison, how he and his former co-workers felt discarded and left on the curb, in favor of something shiny and new. Last May 28 Latino workers were summarily fired by Madison area Taco Bell restaurants after working for anywhere from 4-13 years. They were replaced by white workers who were paid more in a starting salary than the Latino workers had been paid after extended tenures with the restaurant. The firing happened after the workers experienced increasing discrimination not being allowed to speak Spanish on the job, not being given as many breaks as their non-Latino counterparts.
These workers are not alone. Each and every day that our office at the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice is open- workers, mostly Latino workers, come to us seeking help after experiencing unfair, often illegal treatment in the workplace. Most often they come in because they have not been paid for hours they have worked. They are forced to clock out and then continue working overtime without pay. Or they are fired and not paid for their last two weeks of work. Or they are contract workers and are just simply not paid.
As we join together on this Sunday of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday weekend, we turn our attention to this injustice that is often invisible in our communities. Rev. King is most well known for his civil rights work but he was also a staunch spokesperson for economic justice and workers’ rights. In fact he spent the last weeks of his life he spent in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers.
Last year at this time we celebrated King’s legacy by rejoicing in the inauguration of the first African-American president. When we reflect on the fact that an African-American family inhabits the White House, we are aware of how much has changed since King tragic assassination. However, to honor King is to not only rejoice in the progress but to take action on what still needs repair. As Reverend King said to the striking sanitation workers in Memphis in one of the final speeches of his life, King said,
“Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now, that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?…” We are saying, “Now is the time.” Get the word across to everybody in power in this town that now is the time to make real the promises of democracy” (Martin Luther King, Jr., speech to the striking sanitation workers, Memphis Tennessee March 18, 1968).
How easily he could have spoken these words today. It is eerie how true they ring in our years in this time of economic downturn.
When take King’s words with the words of Isaiah from today’s selection from the Hebrew Bible we receive a call to action. Isaiah says, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.” (Isaiah, 62:1). When we take these words and integrate them with King’s message we call out our own message, “for the sake of those who are not able to provide food for their children, those who do not have access to health care and those who struggle to keep a roof over their head we will not be silent. For the sake of those who are mistreated because of their immigration status or robbed from the wages they have earned, we will not rest, until their vindication shines out like the dawn and their salvation like a burning torch.”
Martin Luther King was a preacher. He knew that economic justice was moral issue that was at the heart of what it meant to be a person of faith. I know that myself when I look in the eyes of the young man who has a small notebook where he has meticulously tracked each hour he has worked in the last two months and pleads with me that he does not want extra pay but just wants to be paid for his work. I know I am witnessing the modern day version of the Biblical story of the Israelites in Egypt who worked under harsh task masters when two women come in with their young children to tell us they need their wages from the last two weeks they worked in the cleaning service at the hotel but are not sure what to do because they do not want to get in trouble with immigration.
Every day decent, hard working people in our neighborhoods are being robbed. Workers who bus tables at the restaurants where we enjoy our meals, who clean the office buildings where we work and do the laundry in our hospitals where we recover from illness are being robbed of their wages. These workers who often work behind the scenes and perform the important services we depend on have not only been robbed of their wages but of their dignity, their trust in others and often their hope.
These workers, like Juan and the Taco Bell workers, are treated like old furniture-
[G]iven all the dignity of random pieces of furniture, objects who could be moved from location to location, treated well or abused based on the owners’ whim, and then disowned without concern. After all, furniture has no feelings. Or memories. Obligations or relationships to which anyone must attend. [This is how much old furniture is treated.] But on the other hand, many of us, in fact, prefer old things in our home, particularly when the alternative is the poorly made, look-alike stuff to be found in many stores. Why do we love our old furniture? Because it does hold memories and sentiment. Because it was passed down from a beloved or discovered on a particularly sunny day with a friend or made by our or another’s worn hands.
There is value placed on really old furniture. People call them antiques, stroke them, care for them, and pay dearly for them. Why? Because they too were made with more care and expertise than their younger counterparts. And, often, because they came from another place, another culture. Because their lines carry stories of their history and travels and stir in us the attachment to both travel and home. (Becky Schigiel, ICWJ newsletter, August 2009)
Perhaps the problem is not that the immigrant workers in our cities are being treated like old furniture but perhaps it is that they are not being allowed the dignity and care that we do even bestow on furniture, much less a person, that is aged, dependable, well-crafted and yes, perhaps, long-traveled.
It is time for our society to recognize the dignity of the hard workers, often from other countries, who work in every corner of our cities. When we, as a society really deeply understand that all people are made in the image of God and that the wealth we cling to is temporary and ultimately belongs to God we will see a more just world unfold. Our faith traditions call each of us to be part of this transformation. We begin by letting the silent stories of those who work in the shadows of our own cities motivate us to speak out about the injustices that happen around us each and every day so that words of the Psalm from today’s lectionary ring true for all in our cities, “All people may feast on the abundance of [God's] house, and drink form the river of your delights.” (Psalm 36:8).
May this be God’s will.