They gather every Monday. Hundreds of low-wage workers, faith leaders, civil rights organizers, trade union members and liberal activists from all over the US have been taking to the streets each week since May 13th2018 to protest inequality, racism, ecological devastation, militarism and all kinds of discrimination.
They call themselves the “Poor People’s Campaign”, a direct reference to the movement launched by Martin Luther King Jr. a few months before his assassination on 4 April 1968.
The heart of King’s campaign was a mule-drawn procession from Marks, Mississippi, at that time the poorest town in the poorest state of the United States, eventually arriving in Washington DC. Today’s Poor People’s Campaign will also culminate in a national action at the US Capitol on 23 June, UN Public Service Day.
This is not a coincidence. Only real access for all to quality public services like education, health care, childcare services, decent retirement, public transport, efficient justice systems and quality infrastructure will allow the fight for social justice and the reduction of inequalities to progress.
Martin Luther King knew this. On the day of his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee he was supporting 1,300 sanitation workers who were on strike, convinced that a coalition of activists from trade unions, faith and social justice organizations was the best way to lift millions of Americans out of poverty.
Fifty years later, this agenda is more relevant than ever in the US and the rest of the world. Public capital—as opposed to private—has shrunk to nearly zero everywhere since 1970. It is less than zero in the US and Britain due to austerity programs and regressive tax systems, along with a political framing that considers public companies as obsolete and public servants as a class of privileged workers who are expensive and inefficient. Not to mention trade unionists, who are seen as dangerous dinosaurs who should be mocked at best, and at worst imprisoned or killed.
The consequences are devastating. Income inequality has increased in every region of the world in recent decades as the global top one per cent of earners has captured twice as much of GDP growth as the poorest fifty per cent, as shown by the World Inequality report 2018.
This phenomenon is especially acute in the United States, where the top one per cent’s share of national wealth rose from 22 per cent in 1980 to 39 per cent in 2014. Most of that increase in inequality was due to the rise of the top 0.1 per cent of wealth owners.
The battle to reverse these trends is tough and dangerous, as public sector workers are constantly under attack all over the world. The number of countries which tolerate the arbitrary arrest and detention of workers increased from 44 to 59 in 2017 according to the International Trade Union Confederation's Global Rights Index. About 2.5 billion people in the informal economy, among migrants and those in precarious jobs are excluded from any protection under labor laws.
But this is not inevitable. At Public Services International (PSI), a Global Union Federation dedicated to promoting quality public services, we are convinced that now, more than ever, working people need strong unions to fight back and secure good jobs with fair salaries and benefits.
Just like Martin Luther King 50 years ago we have a dream: that one day workers of all races and backgrounds will have a decent life. "One Day" is also the title of a PSI series of films on the world of labor which highlights the extraordinary lives of ordinary public sector workers around the globe.
On this Public Service Day, we want to celebrate these workers. But celebration and struggle are not about one day or one moment. They are about building a movement that will last. This will be a long journey, but when social movements and trade unions come together they can win.
It is time to shift the narrative. The struggle for universal rights such as a living wage, good working conditions and access to quality public services will never be outdated.