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King's legacy: workers' rights

Last modified: 1/16/2012 12:00:00 AM
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.

(Arnie Alpert is New Hampshire program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization working for social justice and peace.)


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