Wednesday, February 23, 2011

It's 1968 All Over Again, and King's Fight For Unions Is Still Essential/Assault on Unions Is Attack on Civil Rights By Jesse Jackson

It's 1968 All Over Again, and King's Fight For Unions Is Still Essential


by Michael Honey




February 23 2011


In light of the clash of wills in Wisconsin, we should

remember the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One of

King's slogans that we rarely hear is this one: "all labor has dignity."


King spoke these words in Memphis on March 18, 1968, in the

midst of a strike of 1,200 black sanitation workers that had

lasted over a month. After rousing them to a fever pitch,

King called for a general strike by all workers to shut the

city down on behalf of the sanitation workers.


What was the demand of these workers? Improved wages and

benefits, yes, but their key demand was that the City of

Memphis grant collective bargaining rights and the

collection of union dues, without which they knew they could

not maintain their union.


These are the very two items that Wisconsin's Gov. Scott

Walker wants to take away from public employees. He knows,

as did Mayor Henry Loeb in Memphis, that if you can kill

union bargaining rights and dues collection, you can kill the union.


Also like Loeb, Walker is a fiscal conservative. As he cuts

taxes for business he raises costs for workers and says

ending union power will benefit the fiscal health of the

state. Walker wants to end the right of public employees to

bargain collectively, even though the workers have accepted

a tripling of their health-care costs and a wage cut to help

offset the state's fiscal crisis.


In nearby Ohio, Gov. John Kasich wants to take away the

right to join a union for 14,000 state-financed child-care

and home-care workers, among the most overworked and

underpaid of public servants. In other states, Republicans

want to adopt "right to work" (for less) laws that would

take away the requirement that workers in unionized jobs pay

union dues. This would undermine the unions while, in King's

words, providing "no rights and no work."


Even in Midwest states that have been union strongholds,

Republicans now have public-employee unions in their cross-

hairs. This is the latest and potentially most deadly phase

of government assault on unions. Ever since the Reagan

counterrevolution, government policies joined with private

sector profiteers have vastly worsened racial-economic

inequalities, created a gambling casino on Wall Street and

paved the way for the current economic crisis.


Conservatives rationalize their attacks on unions by saying

unionized public workers are unfairly privileged. But they

only look privileged by comparison to the rest of the

working class, which is suffering economic catastrophe and

has almost entirely lost the benefits of unionization. Yet

class envy is an easy means to divide and rule.


Racism is another part of the Republican arsenal of divide

and rule. Thanks to the destruction of manufacturing jobs

and unions, black and Latino workers in manual occupations

have disproportionately suffered high rates of poverty and

incarceration as many of their families disintegrate. The

one toe-hold many black and minority workers (and especially

women among them) still have in the economy is in unionized

public employment. Now, the Republicans want to take that away.


In one stroke, by eliminating both bargaining rights and

union dues, Republicans can insure that organized, dues-

paying workers and particularly minorities and women will no

longer provide a potent base for the Democratic Party. There

will be few grassroots organizations left to counter the

huge infusion of money into politics by the rich.


Workers in Wisconsin have agreed to make sacrifices to get

state government out of its budgetary hole. But it would be

a huge mistake for anyone to go beyond that and buy into

attacks on public employee unions. Loss of unions will

further decimate the spending power of working people,

thereby intensifying the economic crisis while further

removing the voice of workers from politics. That's a

downward spiral.


Republicans most especially wants to undermine the American

Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees

(AFSCME). Founded in Wisconsin, AFSCME flowered after King

died in the fight for union rights in Memphis in 1968.

AFSCME became one of the largest unions in the country, with

King regarded as an honorary member and practically a

founder of the union.


In King's framework, killing public employees unions today

would be immoral as well as foolish. He said the three evils

facing humankind are war, racism and economic injustice, and

that the purpose of a union is to overcome the latter evil.

King said the civil-rights movement from 1954 to 1965 was

"phase one," to be followed by a second phase-the struggle

for economic advancement. We are not doing very well in

phase two, and unions remain essential to carry it out.


I've recently finished a new collection of King's remarkable

speeches, titled "All Labor Has Dignity," which shows that

throughout his life, King stood up for union rights. There

is no more important time than the present for us all to

follow his lead.


Michael Honey is a historian and Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington, Tacoma. He is

editor of "All Labor Has Dignity" (Beacon Press, 2011) and author of "Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike:

Martin Luther King's Last Campaign" (W.W. Norton, 2007).



Assault on Unions Is Attack on Civil Rights By Jesse Jackson

23 February 11


RSN Special Coverage: GOP's War on American Labor


It looks like "Cairo has moved to Madison," said conservative Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, as 50,000 citizens took over the state's Capitol building. He got the spirit right, but the location wrong. In Madison, folks wearing Packers jerseys stand together with folks wearing Bears colors. Madison is this generation's Selma, the epicenter for the modern battle for basic human rights.


In 1965, the drive for basic voting rights was stalled in the U.S. Senate. President Johnson pushed Martin Luther King to stop demonstrating. Instead, Dr. King went to Selma. Selma was not a big city, but it held a mirror to the nation. There, on Bloody Sunday, peaceful demonstrators were met with dogs, clubs and hoses, and touched the conscience of a nation. Two days later, Johnson, invoking the famous words, "We shall overcome,"

introduced the Voting Rights Act. Five months later it was signed into law.


Today, the assault on basic rights is accelerating. The economic collapse caused by the gambols of Wall Street destabilizes public budgets at every level, as tax receipts plummet and expenses caused by unemployment rise.

Yet Wall Street gets bailed out, and working and poor people are squeezed to pay to clean up their mess.


In states across the country, conservatives have used this occasion to assail public workers and their unions. They demand not only rollback of pay and benefits, but push laws to cripple - if not ban - public employee unions, destroying the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.


Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a self-described "Tea Party governor," leads the most egregious of these efforts. Upon election, he signed into law millions in tax breaks for business. Then, pointing to the budget crisis, he demanded not only harsh concessions from public workers

- dramatic hikes in what they pay for pensions and health care - but crippling limits on their right to negotiate, limits on any pay increases and an annual vote to see if the union survives. As if to flaunt his power grab, he exempted the unions - police and firefighters - that endorsed him in the election.


The right to organize, to bargain collectively and to strike are basic human rights enshrined in international law. To this day, the U.S. champions independent free trade unions across the world - even as Walker and his ilk seek to crush them at home. With the U.S. suffering more extreme inequality than Egypt, and the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United giving corporations and billionaires a free pass to distort our elections, unions are virtually the only counter that workers have. That's why the right has targeted unions; that is why every citizen has a stake in their survival.


In Wisconsin, the public employees accepted the harsh concessions demanded by the governor, but rejected the attack on their basic rights. Teachers, nurses and other public workers stood up. Democratic state legislators left the state, blocking the effort to ram the legislation through. Students, ministers and progressives rallied to their side. The demonstrations are now entering their second week. Across the country, just as in the civil rights movement, people of conscience are holding vigils and protests in support. This is a Martin Luther King moment.


The effort by the governor and his right-wing allies to divide private sector workers from public sector workers is an old trick. In the South, race was used to divide.

The tricks perfected in the South - right-to-work laws, barriers to unions - are now coming north.


Madison, like Selma, is not a major city. It isn't Chicago or New York or Los Angeles. And it isn't Cairo. It is the epicenter of the battle for America's democracy, and it is as American as Lexington, Concord, Gettysburg, Montgomery and Selma.




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