• Advertisement

King’s Legacy: Workers Rights, Leader Fought Anti-Union Efforts, From Arnie Alpert

This is an Op/Ed from Arnie Alpert. The Op/Ed first ran in the Concord Monitor on January  16, 2012

 

Dr Martin Luther KingKing’s legacy: workers’ rights

Leader fought anti-union efforts

By Arnie Alpert

At a time when workers are struggling to find decent jobs and local legislators are debating whether to strip public sector workers of their rights to form unions, we would do well to consider that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life standing up for better jobs and workers’ rights. As was entirely consistent with his stand for peace and justice, he roundly condemned “right-to-work” laws like those now being pushed in New Hampshire.

Now branded a “civil rights leader,” King always tied the black freedom agenda to economics. At the 1963 March on Washington, formally known as the “March for Jobs and Freedom,” King explained that 100 years after slavery had been abolished, “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

Throughout his 13-year public career, from the Montgomery bus boycott to the Poor Peoples Campaign and the Memphis sanitation workers strike, King “consistently aligned himself with ordinary working people, supporting their demands for workplace rights and economic justice,” writes historian Michael Honey in the introduction to a new collection of King speeches.

For a timely example, King spoke out consistently against “right-to-work” laws like the one adopted in last year’s legislative session and vetoed by Gov. John Lynch. “Right-to-work “provides no ‘rights’ and no ‘works,’ King said. “Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining.”

Last week, the New Hampshire House approved HB 383, a version of “right to work” limited to state employees, by a vote of 212-128. A similar bill is up for a hearing this week.

King said of such proposals in 1961, “It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. It is supported by Southern segregationists who are trying to keep us from achieving our civil rights and our right of equal job opportunity. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone. Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights.”

“Segregationist” may be a label that no longer applies to anti-union lawmakers, but the connection between race and the impact of unions is not just a matter of history.
“The lingering effects of discrimination, the educational attainment gap, and economic segregation are among the causes of the stubborn racial divide in employment,” reports United for a Fair Economy in its annual “State of the Dream” report, released Friday.
“The erosion of manufacturing jobs in recent decades, coupled with the anti-government attack on public sector workers and labor unions, have exacerbated racial inequalities in employment,” the report says.

With blacks 30 percent more likely than the overall work force to work for the government, the attack on public sector workers reinforces dynamics that keep black poverty rates twice that of whites and keep the net worth of black families one-fifth that of white ones.

It was arithmetic like that that brought King to Memphis in 1968.

Working in dismal conditions at poverty level wages, more than 1,000 sanitation and sewage system workers had walked off the job on Feb. 12 that year. As they held daily meetings and marches over the next eight weeks, the fundamental issues in their struggle were the right to negotiate a union contract and the right to have union dues deducted from paychecks. The very same issues are at stake here.

This week the New Hampshire House Labor Committee is considering HB 1163, which “prohibits employers from withholding union dues from employees’ wages” and HB 1206, which does the same thing, but limits the restriction to public state workers.
More serious, perhaps, is HB 1645, “prohibiting all public employees from participating in collective bargaining.” Teachers, firefighters, police officers, the people who plow our roads and make sure our drinking water is safe, and the entire state workforce would lose the protection of their union contracts should this radical proposal become law.

After King’s assassination, the Memphis workers finally won an agreement with the city.
“In its wake,” writes Michael Honey, “public employees became the leading force for union expansion in America.”

New Hampshire’s public employees did not secure the right to unionize until 1975, which means they owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. King and the Memphis workers.

King was acutely aware of history, and often quoted Theodore Parker’s statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

But as a scholar who understood the role played by organized labor in ending sweatshops and creating the American middle class, he knew someone had to do some active bending for justice to result.

“Social progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals,” he said in a 1961 speech to the United Auto Workers union.

If we want to be on the side of King’s dream of economic justice, we’ve got some work to do.

Dr King Continues To Inspire Us To Reach For The American Dream With Equality For All

What can I say about one of the greatest teachers of our time?  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not only our country’s greatest civil rights activist, he taught us in the labor movement that we are all connected, that workers’ rights are human rights.

No matter our race, or religion – all the millions of working families in our country are looking for the same thing.  It used to be called “The American Dream”.  We all want to have enough money to live in a decent home, enough that we don’t have to worry about paying for food or paying the heat bill.  We want to raise our children in safe neighborhoods with decent schools.  We want to have time outside of work, to spend with our children and get involved in our communities.  We want to live a full life and then be able to retire with dignity.

MLK Marching But in recent decades, the workers of this country have not been able to rise up and reach for that Dream.  Instead, we have been pushed down: through stagnant wages, and increased productivity. Through outsourcing and layoffs.  Under-employment and unemployment.  Through the mantra that “you’re lucky to even have a job.”  Steelworker, waitress, adjunct professor, custodian: we all share that same American Dream.  We are more alike than different.  This is the one thing that unions and union members have understood for hundreds of years.

Back in the 1960s, when unions represented more than 50% of the workforce, things were much different.  Wages were not excessive, but they were fair.  Families could have one parent at home and still afford that nice new GM car, and the house with the white picket fence.

But since then, unions have been under constant attack.  They push legislation like Right To Work (for less).  They pit private-sector worker against public-sector employee.  They tell us they can’t “afford” pay raises, they can’t “afford” to maintain our benefits, even when their profits are breaking records.  They hack away at our collective bargaining rights until they can make those rights meaningless.

Dr King was way ahead of his time when he said:

“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone…Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.” —Martin Luther King, speaking about right-to-work laws in 1961

Now, more than fifty years later, we are still fighting against Right To Work laws. Community activists are still working with the labor movement to protect collective bargaining rights.

Martin luther king quote

And we in the labor community are still fighting for equal rights for all.  Our unions are standing up for the rights of all workers: gay, lesbian, straight, black, white, or brown.  None of those things should ever hold us back.  None of those things should ever keep any one of us from reaching our own version of the American Dream.

It is an eternal truth: we are all connected.  “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me (Matthew 25:40).”

We must stand together, if we are to stand at all.

 

(This post was co-written by Matt Murray and Liz Iacobucci)

  • Subscribe to the NH Labor News via Email

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 200 other subscribers

  • Advertisement

  • Advertisement