By DAVID GROVES
(Jan. 16, 2015) — If the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, right-wing conservatives would be doing their best to brand him as a radical “socialist” who hates freedom and America.
The man whose legacy we celebrate on Monday is best known for campaigning against racial discrimination and for civil rights. But one of the civil rights he passionately supported was the right of Americans to organize labor unions. Today, in Washington state and across the nation, that right is under its most serious assault since the day King was assassinated as he fought to defend it.
King was murdered at the age of 39 in April 1968 in Memphis, Tenn., where he was supporting members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Sanitation workers there experienced not only racial discrimination, but disregard, disrespect and refusal by local government officials to recognize their union. This video outlines the Memphis struggle and includes King’s final speech, which was on behalf of those workers and the dignity and importance of their work.
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. He was proud to rally with public workers, and proud to make the connection between their struggle for better treatment with the broader struggle for economic equality in America.
Since his death, and particularly in recent years, our nation has lost more ground on union rights than any other civil rights issue that King fought for. Public employees have lost collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and 14 other states, and ALL workers have lost union rights in Indiana and Michigan through the imposition of anti-union “right-to-work” laws. More than a dozen other states, including Washington, have had similar right-to-work legislation proposed.
Now the Republican Party and the billionaire right-wingers who finance it are doubling down on their strategy to take away union rights by also targeting city and county governments.
As you read this, the right-wing Freedom Foundation in Olympia is financing legislative and legal battles to impose right-to-work laws in cities across Washington state. So far, the group’s efforts have been rejected as illegal by city officials and the courts. But the foundation has plenty of attorneys and plenty of money — although they refuse to reveal where it comes from — so their campaign continues.
As a 501(c)(3) charitable organization enjoying exemption from federal taxes, the Freedom Foundation is not supposed to engage in politics. But CEO Tom McCabe has openly bragged that the group’s mission is “to defund and discredit the union political machine” and that “litigation is an essential part of our strategy to take on unions and their political allies.”
“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.”
So on Monday, as we honor King’s legacy, remember that the battle for racial and economic justice is far from over, not just in places like Ferguson but also in Blaine, Chelan, Sequim and Shelton.
Maybe Tom McCabe should just go ahead and have his Freedom Foundation employees work on the MLK Day holiday, like he did as a press stunt on Labor Day. After all, if he were alive today, Dr. King would be actively engaged in the defense of unions and public employees from the likes of him.
David Groves is Editor of The Stand.