By Edwin Bogert || Contributing Writer
In the immediate aftermath of this year’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, the usual stream of articles expressing regret over the loss of his authentically radical message began to flood American media. This is certainly a welcome improvement over the old vision of MLK: an uncontroversial figure who advocated for reconciliation as opposed to the supposedly dangerous goals of people like Malcolm X or Angela Davis. Yet it is clear today that the progress of Civil Rights has not kept up with the restoration of its history.
Although more and more Americans can recall that when he lead thousands of people to Washington in 1963, MLK named it the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, many people have not yet connected it back to today’s staggering Black unemployment rate, currently at 40 percent. While some now know that MLK’s last year was consumed by the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to bring Americans of all races together in order to secure economic as well as political rights for everyone, few question the racist implications of a minimum wage that places the most disenfranchised segments of our society in the prison of poverty. Some may even know that MLK was working in solidarity with local sanitation workers who were fighting for higher wages and better working conditions in Memphis when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
I would argue that very few of us today are willing to act on this legacy. While many people who consider themselves part of Liberal America are willing to vehemently decry prejudice, discrimination, and intolerance, they are more squeamish when it comes to making sure that parents can afford to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads. The mere mention of a $15 minimum wage or a resurgence of union power makes some people run for cover, as if confronting structural racism in our economy is akin to joining the Communist Party. This sort of attitude towards economic justice not only calls into question the progressive credentials of those who espouse it, but it also fundamentally contradicts the emancipatory vision of Martin Luther King, an icon who they are otherwise more than willing to appropriate for their own purposes.
As the 15 Now movement, which is fighting to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, has been gaining traction for the past year across the United States, winning a $15 minimum wage for Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, and elsewhere, it is more important now than ever to ask whether the same can be done for the rest of country. Will well-intentioned people continue to support a more tolerant society while turning a blind eye to the clear and imminent threat to the health, security and well-being of their fellow citizens that poverty wages and union repression represent?
The standard arguments against the minimum wage are clichéd. Allegations of rising unemployment and the minimum wage not “rewarding hard work” are easily rebutted by the fact that a higher minimum wage compensates for uncompetitive, monopsonistic labor markets, as does increased unionization. The demand for labor is relatively inelastic and thus will not doom us to perpetual unemployment, and that the people who work two minimum wage jobs to make ends meet truly are the hardest working people in America. The boogeyman that is often conjured up to discourage wage increases never really appears.
But what does make itself readily apparent is the disparity between the radical vision of MLK and where we are as a campus today. Does F&M live up to its values when it pays its student workers three dollars an hour under the living wage rate of Lancaster County? Or when it contracts with Sodexo, a company well known for its history of interfering with its workers’ right to unionize, investing in the private prison industry, and which pays only its management above a living wage? The story becomes even bleaker when we take into account the fact that the wages that Sodexo pays its workers who contribute so much to our campus approximate poverty wages for any employees with more than one child. Any business based on the poverty of its employees must be fundamentally at odds with F&M’s values.
Ultimately we must reconcile these two faces of F&M just as we must reconcile the two faces of Sodexo. On one hand, Sodexo goes to great length to portray itself as an environmentally- and socially-conscious institution, plastering its walls with posters of mother earth and organic-looking salsa, while it deprives its workers of any ability to make ends meet. Likewise, F&M claims to care about racial equality and making the campus a place where all can flourish regardless of circumstance, while paying students dependent on work study loans far below a living wage, and contracting with Sodexo—a very unjust institution. You can make up your own mind about who comes ahead in this comparison, but what is beyond debate is the need to follow in MLK’s footsteps in demanding economic equality alongside political equality. If F&M truly is an institution dedicated to the liberal arts and a campus for everyone, it needs to put its money where its mouth is.
For more information on how you can tackle labor issues and ethical investment on F&M’s campus, email the Workers’ Advocacy Group at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edwin Bogert is a contributing writer. His email is email@example.com.