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Income inequality has grown exponentially in recent years, as middle-class jobs that pay a decent wage have been replaced by part-time, low-wage work following the recession.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
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT