Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Martin Luther King, A Friend Of Labor

By Angelia Wade, cross-posted from American Constitution Society

This post is part of an ACSblog symposium in honor of the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. National MemorialThe author, Angelia Wade, is Associate General Counsel for the AFL-CIO.

The unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial this weekend provides a clear opportunity to reflect on the work of this icon. When he was assassinated in April 1968, Dr. King was in Memphis lending his support to striking garbage sanitation workers who were seeking to have their union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, (AFSCME) recognized so they could negotiate a contract that raised their standard of living.

Dr. King’s support of the labor movement as a pathway to better jobs and justice did not just begin in 1968. Throughout much of his life, he advocated as much for economic equality as he did for racial equality. He once stated that it did no good for a man to eat at an integrated lunch counter if that same man could not afford to buy a hamburger at the establishment.

Dr. King said the labor movement was a key vehicle for people of color to gain economic equality. He often extolled the benefits and successes of organized labor. In October 1965, in an address to the Illinois AFL-CIO, he said many forget that it was the labor movement that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress, for out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life.

A few years earlier, in December 1961, Dr. King told attendees of the annual convention of the national AFL-CIO:
By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed levels of production. Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.

Dr. King’s words still ring true 50 years later. In 2011, working people face an intense assault as some companies demand that workers contribute more to their pensions and health care premiums while management pockets millions of dollars in profits.

Through jobs in the public sector, many Americans, particularly people of color and women, were able to rise to the middle class and provide a better life for their families. Yet, earlier this year, Gov. Scott Walker led the charge to strip public sector unions of many of their collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin. Soon, other states followed, claiming budget woes necessitated silencing the voices of workers on the job and essentially engaging in union busting. Those who claim that balancing the budget should come at the expense of the working middle class have forgotten or reject the benefits organized labor produces.

But workers are fighting back. Union members are joining in coalitions with like-minded progressives, including environmentalists, faith-based groups and community leaders to use their combined organizing and political power to promote candidates who are pro worker and advocate for changes that benefit those who work for a living.

In Dr. King’s last campaign, he chose to fight for those seeking good jobs, fair wages, safe working conditions and respect. He highlighted the plight of the Memphis working poor and the power of organizing and striking. It is a resounding call to action that working families must fight the same battle five decades later.

So, this weekend labor will celebrate with the rest of the country the unveiling of Dr. King’s memorial on the National Mall, but we will also discuss how to make his dream of a genuinely equal America into a reality. The AFL-CIO and the King Center will host a national symposium on jobs, justice and the American Dream on Aug. 26.

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker reminds us why the symposium is an important way to honor Dr. King:  "This weekend is much more than the opening of a historic memorial, it’s about highlighting the needs of struggling working families – the same families that Dr. King devoted his life to fighting for."


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