Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Unions Continue the Work of Martin Luther King Jr.
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Of the many reasons to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, none were more important yet more generally ignored than the continued strengthening of the link between the civil rights and labor movements that Dr. King worked so hard to forge.

As he said, "The coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the blacks and forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined.... Our needs are identical with labor's needs: Decent wages, fair working conditions, liveable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community."

King was assassinated, don't forget, while preparing for another of the demonstrations he led for striking African American sanitation workers who in 1968 were demanding union rights from municipal authorities in Memphis, Tennessee.

His death brought great public pressure to bear in behalf of the strikers, who soon won the right of unionization. For the first time, their own representatives could negotiate with their bosses.

They got substantial raises in pay that had been so low 40 percent of them had qualified for welfare payments. They got their first paid holidays and vacations. They got agreement that promotions would be made on the basis of seniority without regard to race, assuring the promotion of African Americans to supervisory positions for the first time.

Millions of African American workers still lack the union rights and other legal protections needed to guarantee them the full lives Martin Luther King Jr. sought for them -- protections many unions are now seeking for African American and minority workers generally.

Many other minority workers, although unionized, have had to struggle against attempts to erode what they've gained through their unions. The recent New York transit strike was a prime example of that, and a clear demonstration of the connection between the labor and civil rights movements.

The right to strike is an essential union tactic, but one that the law denies New York's transit workers and most other public employees nationwide. The 33,000 transit workers, more than 70 percent of them minorities, struck nevertheless against what they believed to be unfair contract demands by the transit authority.

"There is a higher calling than the law and that's justice and equality," declared President Roger Toussaint of the strikers' union. "Had Rosa Parks answered the call of the law instead of the higher call of justice, many of us who are driving buses today would still be in the back of the bus."

Seven key unions that withdrew from the AFL-CIO last year to form their own federation, Change to Win, are leading the drive to win the basic civil right of unionization for workers in other occupations with a high proportion of minority workers. They're workers King often singled out for particular attention - janitors, for instance, school bus drivers, security guards, laundry, health care, textile and hotel and restaurant workers.

Many of those non-union workers' pay is set by the federal minimum wage, a poverty-level $5.15 an hour that hasn't been increased since 1997 despite repeated attempts by unions and others to get Congress' Republican majority to approve an increase. Church and community groups launched a nationwide campaign on the weekend of King's birthday aimed at winning broad support for raising the federal minimum and the 34 state minimums that remain at the same level.

General Secretary Bob Edgar of the National Council of Churches, one of the major sponsors of the "Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign," noted that King called for "the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty" - and that can't be done without raising the minimum wage.

Martin Luther King Jr. believed that a decent wage should be the right of all Americans, one of the basic needs they have in common, all of them intertwined labor and civil rights.

Copyright (c) 2006 Dick Meister