MLK: Champion of labor, bargaining rights

The Stand

(Jan. 21, 2013) — The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose legacy we celebrate today, is best known for campaigning against racial discrimination and for civil rights. But one of those civil rights, the right of Americans to organize labor unions, is today facing its most coordinated assault since King was killed fighting for them.

King died at the age of 39 in April 1968 as he supported members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union in Memphis, Tenn. The sanitation workers there experienced not just racial discrimination but the disregard and disrespect that, even today, is so often directed at those who perform essential public services. King knew that the struggle for economic and social justice necessarily includes the right of workers to form unions not only to improve their own wages and working conditions, but also to fight for the preservation of public services.

This video outlines the Memphis sanitation workers’ struggle to gain union recognition from a local government determined not to allow them to bargain collectively. It includes King’s final speech, which was on behalf of those workers and the dignity and importance of their work.


Since his death, and particularly in the past three years, our nation has lost more ground on union and collective bargaining rights than any other civil rights issue the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for. Having succeeded in taking away public employees’ collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and other states — and union rights for ALL workers by imposing a “right-to-work” law in Michigan — as you read this, the Republican Party and the billionaire right-wingers who finance it are doubling down on their strategy to take away union rights at the state level.

They have succeeded in convincing many Americans that the Great Recession’s job loss was caused not by Wall Street malfeasance and corporate greed, but instead by unions that make America less competitive. They have convinced many Americans that the recession’s budget deficits were caused not by tax cuts for the top 2%, bailouts for big banks and overseas military campaigns, but instead by public employees and their unions.

So on Monday, as we honor King’s legacy as a champion of civil rights, remember that he included the right to form a union and bargain collectively to be a civil right as well. He was proud to rally with public workers, and proud to make the connection between their struggle for improved wages and working conditions with the broader struggle for social and economic justice for all workers — public and private.

“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work’,” King said. “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.”

Make no mistake. If he were alive today, he would be actively engaged in the defense of public employees and their unions.

And Fox News would be doing its best to brand King as a “socialist” who hates America.

David Groves is Editor of The Stand.

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