Before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. planned to press for economic equality. Guest columnist Michael Honey recalls King’s views on labor as states across the country consider cutting back the power of labor unions.
AT this time of year, we try to remember the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He said peace and justice are indivisible; an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth makes us all toothless and blind; the three enemies of humankind are war, racism and poverty.
One of the slogans from King that most of us don’t know is this one: “all labor has dignity.”
King described the civil-rights movement from 1954 to 1965 as only phase one of his movement. The second phase would be a struggle for economic equality, by which he meant increased opportunity for the unemployed poor and union rights for the working poor.
From 1965 to 1968, he worked to end the slums in Chicago and the war in Vietnam; he mounted a Poor People’s Campaign and fought for the right of lowly sanitation workers to have a public-employee union in Memphis.
If you believe in putting King’s beliefs into action, it is time to stand up for the rights of workers.
Republican legislators and governors, even in states that have been union strongholds, have public-employee unions in their crosshairs.
Gov. John Kasich of Ohio wants to take away the right to join a union for 14,000 state-financed child-care and home-care workers, who are among the most overworked and underpaid of public servants.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker threatens to end the right of public employees to bargain collectively if they don’t accept a tripling of their health-care costs.
The Times recently ran an op-ed by two former Washington legislators [“Government can become smaller while still making moral choices,” Jan. 12] that advocated addressing the state’s budget problems by slashing public employment and cutting the wages of those who remain.
There is even talk of extending “right to work” (for less) laws of Southern and some Western states into union strongholds of the Midwest like Indiana. These laws would lower wages and undermine working conditions.
We are now in the latest and potentially most deadly phase of government assault on working people and unions since the Reagan counterrevolution. That movement vastly worsened racial-economic inequalities, created a gambling casino on Wall Street and paved the way for the current economic crisis.
The attack on public-employee unions is rationalized by the belief that unionized public workers are unfairly privileged. But according to the Economic Policy Institute, the average public workers make less than their private-sector counterparts with the same experience, age and education.
Unionized public employees only look privileged by comparison with the rest of the working class, which is suffering economic catastrophe and has mostly lost the benefits of unionization.
It is obvious that we need shared sacrifice to get state governments out of the budgetary hole they are in. But it will be a big mistake if we begin to undermine the rights of public workers to belong to a union and to fight for the decent wages and benefits all workers deserve.
Efforts to shred public-employee unions would have deadly effects on the wages, jobs and living standards of the rest of us – especially African Americans, who constitute the most highly unionized group of workers in the country.
King fought for the right of all workers to belong to unions, and died supporting that right in Memphis. He called on us to rally to protect and extend union rights, and there is no more important time to do so than the present.
Michael Honey is Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington, Tacoma.