Even before the coronavirus hit, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that the highest demand for labor in the next decade would be seen in occupations where average pay is less than $35,000 a year. Among these jobs were personal care and home health aides, medical assistants, warehouse workers, janitors, and others now on the front lines of the pandemic.
These essential workers have long faced harsh conditions on the job, regardless of the economic and political context. This was the case even in the 1960s when a tight labor market increased wages for unskilled workers and when organized labor was at its strongest. “So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs,” Martin Luther King Jr. stated to sanitation workers on strike in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. “But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth.”
The problems facing the sanitation workers in Memphis stemmed from their exclusion from federal labor laws that had protected the rights of mostly white, male industrial workers to form unions and bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions since the 1930s. This exclusion was rooted in policies aimed at ensuring the availability and affordability of essential goods and services, which stretched back to the Progressive Era. Reformers insisted that rapid urbanization and industrialization required city and state governments to provide services that had previously been performed within private households, such as child care, healthcare, food preparation, cleaning, and waste disposal. They coined the terms “Public Housekeeping” and “Municipal Housekeeping” to explain the transition.
The comparison between domestic and public service helped to legitimize women’s participation in public life and leadership in city government, but it also encouraged officials to adopt racist and sexist assumptions that had informed structures of domestic servitude for centuries. In 1930 the trade journal The American City published an article by a Philadelphia sanitation engineer, which boasted of various methods used to reduce costs and raise funds. It was illustrated with a photograph of African-American women sorting rubbish for material that could be sold or burned for heat. “Colored women are used for this work,” the engineer informed readers, adding: “many typical mammies are found there.”
That a prominent professional journal would employ such derogatory language to describe city employees demonstrates how uncritically assumptions about the value of domestic labor were adapted to essential public services. And through the 1930s, conservatives fretted that increasing public employment would deprive them of low-wage household labor. “Five Negroes on my place in South Carolina refused work this Spring, after I had taken care of them and given them house rent free and work for three years during bad times saying they had easy jobs with the government,” wrote a prominent critic of New Deal employment programs in 1934.
This didn’t mean that these public jobs provided a decent living. Liberals constrained government expenditure by limiting wages and benefits. To ensure public access to inexpensive care, cleaning, and food, for example, Congress excluded farm workers, domestic servants, and public employees from policies designed to assist workers during the Great Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt adopted the language of servitude to explain why these workers were denied collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Acknowledging that their interests were “basically no different from that of employees in private industry,” the president insisted that those concerns were overshadowed by “the special relationships and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government.” As government expanded to provide healthcare, education, and other essential services in the mid-twentieth century, “The division of labor in public settings mirror[ed] the division of labor in the household,” observed sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn.
Essential workers did not accept these arguments. They launched vigorous movements to demand better treatment and compensation. Public employees were the most successful and by the 1950s they emerged as the fastest growing sector of organized labor. While conservatives blocked efforts to extend federal labor protections, states granted limited collective bargaining rights and minimum wage floors to public employees and farm workers in the 1960s and 1970s.
This was the context in which King went to Memphis. Tennessee was among the mostly Southern states that resisted the trend toward legalizing public unions, and the city hired sanitation workers as day laborers without any benefits or job stability. King’s assassination in Memphis steeled the resolve of those striking workers he was there to support, and they went on to win union recognition and wage increases. “What Memphis and the spirit of Memphis did was gave a new kind of recognition to some workers that had been there all along but never recognized,” recalled union leader William Lucy, an organizer of the strike.
But the spirit of Memphis met stiff resistance nationwide, both from conservatives who opposed the expansion of government and from liberals who insisted that government could be expanded without increasing taxes. The recession of the 1970s killed any hope for a federal extension of collective bargaining rights to public employees, and in 1981 Ronald Reagan famously fired 11,345 striking air-traffic controllers after they disobeyed an order to return to work.
While public-sector pay and benefits lagged behind other sectors, a steady beat of misinformation fed broad resentment of reputedly overprivileged government workers. In the early twenty-first century, that same warped envy burst back onto the scene, first directed toward home healthcare workers, who were paid with public funds but hired by private households. A 2007 Supreme Court ruling classified these aides as domestic workers, a move that, according to Nakano Glenn, “decreed that the burden of providing ‘affordable care’ for vulnerable members of society would continue to be borne not by state or federal governments or corporations but by the poorest and most disadvantaged members of the work force.” Similar logic fed the backlash against public-sector unions in New Jersey, Wisconsin, and other states during the Great Recession and the further weakening of federal protections for public employees and domestic workers.
Despite the outpouring of praise for essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, their own interests continue to come second to the broader public’s need for cheap and reliable labor. This was evident in Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s opposition to increased unemployment benefits for nurses, on the grounds that this was “literally incentivizing taking people out of the workforce at a time when we need critical infrastructure supplied with workers.” But it may also be limiting Democrats’ support for proposals such as the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act (which was referred to the House Committee on Education last June and remains there) and Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ro Khanna’s recent Essential Workers Bill of Rights.
Politicians’ resistance or reluctance to support worker power indicates that we are not yet prepared, as King hoped over fifty years ago, to respect “the dignity of labor.” But as he and those who went on strike from collecting garbage knew, together workers can force that recognition by depriving us of the essential services they provide.
William P. Jones is professor of history at the University of Minnesota, the Jerry Wurf Memorial Fund Scholar-in-Residence at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, President of the Labor and Working-Class History Association and author of The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights. He is writing a book about race and labor in the public sector.