Ed Gainey: UPMC exploiting memory of Martin Luther King Jr. | TribLIVE.com
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Ed Gainey: UPMC exploiting memory of Martin Luther King Jr.

The Martin Luther King Jr Memorial in Washington.

On the evening before he was assassinated in Memphis, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” address to the city’s black community. King foresaw his own death and spoke about the need for others in the movement to carry on. “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place,” he said, acknowledging the threats to his life. “But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.”

King had come to Memphis to stand with striking sanitation workers, almost all of whom were black, all of whom lived in poverty and all of whom were barred from forming a union. The workers’ strike was sparked when two men were killed by a faulty garbage crusher. But every worker was sick and tired of what their employer forced them to endure.

Clint Jones, one of the Memphis strikers, recalled 25 years later that the men walked off because they received no overtime pay despite brutally long hours. Wages were so low that a full-time worker could qualify for welfare. “Memphis residents thought that we were satisfied because most of those people would give you hand-outs, but we just got tired of those handouts. You almost could tell a worker when you saw him in the streets. He either had a hat on too large or his shoes was too big or his coat was too long … . We worked every day and none of us had the money so that we could buy and pick as other people do.”

While it would be wrong to say our society has made no progress since King’s time, not enough has changed.

A half-century since his assassination, UPMC’s hospital service workers, who are disproportionately black, are still working for less than living wages. They are still poor enough to require state assistance while working full-time jobs. Some of them still depend on hand-outs to feed their families. Recently we learned that many of them are in debt to their own employer for daring to seek medical care.

Now UPMC wants to move us away from the goals King lived for — and died for — by exploiting his memory to squeeze its workers a little more. This month, UPMC told workers at Western Psych that it plans to end Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday across its entire system. Instead, workers will get a “floating” paid day of service. Those required to work MLK day, understandable in a hospital, will no longer receive time-and-a-half as compensation for forgoing precious rest and time with family.

Holidays are not exchangeable for “days of service.” Just imagine if UPMC tried to do this with Christmas or Thanksgiving. Working people count on holidays to spend time with friends and family who will also be free. Schools and day care are closed, so time spent with the kids is also time not spent arranging difficult and often costly holiday child care.

In an audacious bit of spin, UPMC frames the change as part of its “commitment” to diversity, inclusion and service. But we know that for UPMC, when diversity clashes with the bottom line, the bottom line always wins out.

For black Americans, Martin Luther King Jr. Day holds a solemn weight. We live in a country that still has not truly reckoned with its legacy of putting generations of our ancestors in chains to build wealth too few of us enjoy. To take Martin Luther King Jr. Day away from us is a step back toward the injustices of the past.

But this is also about dignity for every worker at UPMC. MLK Day — as a recognized holiday for all workers — is our national commitment to righting past wrongs. It’s a little extra money for those who have to work, and a day to be with loved ones for those who don’t. In a country that still has not truly made amends for its history of exploitation and discrimination, MLK Day is one day’s worth of material progress for black and working America.

If our largest employer were truly committed to diversity and inclusion, it would be encouraging others to add MLK Day to their roster of paid holidays. Taking it away is an affront to King’s memory and the cause for which he was killed.

King died knowing he would not get to the Promised Land. What a shame that 51 years later, UPMC is doing everything it can to make sure the Promised Land remains so far away from us.

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