The issue of inequality is arguably the central issue of our time. On this last day of February, I can’t let January (MLK’s birthday) and February (Black History Month in the U.S.) go by without making a connection between Martin Luther King and China's labor activists. The two seem like strange bedfellows but both have fought long and hard for the one percent to share more of its wealth with the 99 percent.
Many Americans know that King was assassinated in 1968 on April 4, but few know that he was assassinated in Memphis where he had gone to support a strike by sanitation workers. Many know King as a civil rights leader, but few know him as a democratic socialist who was broadening his activism beyond racial and religious lines to take on the issue of economic justice. In 1968, he and the Southern Leadership Religious Conference (SLRC) began the organizing a Poor People’s Campaign to call attention to the problem of poverty in the U.S. and worldwide. That campaign took him to Memphis in that fateful month of April where he was shot in the neck on the balcony of his motel at the tender age of 39.
Few people also know that one of the signal events in modern Chinese labor history was a strike by more than 200 sanitation workers in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in August of 2014. The workers went on strike because the management company that employed them decided not to renew their street cleaning contract with the district government. When the management company refused to talk to the workers about severance pay and their future employment prospects, the workers went on strike.
With the help of a local labor NGO, the Panyu Workers Center, the workers organized, elected representatives and approached the management company with their demands. When the company again refused to talk, the workers went on strike. Soon after, with the encouragement of local government and union officials, the workers representatives and management company sat down and came to a collective bargaining agreement in which the management company agreed to a severance package that totaled nearly three million yuan (about U.S.$476,000).
Several things made this case unusual and important in the annals of Chinese labor history. One was that workers succeeded in getting a collective bargaining agreement in an authoritarian country where the official union stands on the side of the government and management and does not engage in collective bargaining on behalf of workers. Second, the local authorities and unions encouraged the workers and management to negotiate, instead of arresting or firing the workers for striking as is the norm in China. Third, the workers received support from other sectors of society - local students, journalists and other members of the public.
In his speech to the striking Memphis sanitation workers on February 12, 1968, King sought to lift the spirits of an overflow crowd with words that would have sounded familiar to the Chinese sanitation workers in Guangzhou.
“You are doing many things here in this struggle. You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor….One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive… All labor has dignity.
But you are doing another thing. You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. And I need not remind you that this is our plight as a people all over America.
Now you are doing something else here. You are highlighting the economic issue. You are going beyond purely civil rights to questions of human rights. That is a distinction.
Now let me say a word to those of you who are on strike. You have been out now for a number of days but don’t despair. Nothing worthwhile is gained without sacrifice…. Let it be known everywhere that along with wages and all of the other securities that you are struggling for, you are also struggling for the right to organize and be recognized.
We can all get more together than we can apart; we can get more organized together than we can apart. And this is the way we gain power. Power is the ability to achieve purpose, power is the ability to affect change, and we need power.”
The story of U.S.-China relations over the last 30 years can be read as the story of how inequality was accelerated within and across borders. The tremendous growth in trade and investment between the U.S. and China led to the hollowing out of industrial urban centers in the U.S., and the lifting of hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. In the process, wealth became increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few in both countries. China, in particular, went from a relatively egalitarian country to one of the most unequal countries in the world.
The Guangzhou sanitation strike is, in a sense, a natural product of this decidedly unnatural inequality in a communist country. It is also a product of a growing consciousness among Chinese workers of their rights and their collective strength, or as King noted, their power to induce change. In King’s words, “never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed.”
King’s universal language would have resonated deeply with the Guangzhou sanitation workers. It’s unfortunate that he did not live to see their achievement, one victory on the battlefield in the long war on inequality. He would have been only 86.