Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Feb. 9, 10 or 11
February is Black History Month, a time when we should all remember how intertwined the Civil Rights and labor movements have been, so there was some irony to the nation’s first African-American president speaking the day after the country marked Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday and not mentioning working Americans.
King once said, “The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.
“In our glorious fight for Civil Rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work’,” King said. “It is a law to rob us of our Civil Rights – and job rights.
Economic injustice was identified in the 1968 report by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, which is eerily comparable to complaints – legitimate grievances – today: “Despite growing federal expenditures for manpower development and training programs, and sustained general economic prosperity and increasing demands for skilled workers, about two million – white and nonwhite – are permanently unemployed,” the Kerner Commission reported 47 years ago. “About 10 million are underemployed, of whom 6.5 million work full-time for wages below the poverty line.”
This winter, the numbers are just as chilling.
This month, working Americans should re-establish the link between labor rights and Civil Rights, between Black Power and union solidarity, between common struggles and common foes.
Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson also recalled the connection King felt.
“He always taught that the freedom symphony included not only Civil Rights and the end of segregation, voting rights and the assertion of citizenship, but also economic rights – equal opportunity from the start,” Jackson said. “This, he knew, would be the hardest of all to achieve.
“Dr. King had a dream, but he was not a dreamer,” Jackson continued. “He called for investment and reconstruction in our communities, bottom up. [Instead,] we bailed out the richest, but battered and abandoned the poorest.”
Indeed, the iconic, influential “March on Washington” in 1963 was titled “the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” And King’s assassination in 1968 occurred in Memphis, where he’d gone to support sanitation-worker members of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
Too many people have forgotten that – and too many take for granted organized labor’s achievements, from the five-day work week, job security and pensions to child-labor protections, worker's compensation and paid overtime. Further, unions have been vital in fighting for public education, equal pay for women, and, yes, Civil Rights.
But despite being taken for granted or overlooked by both political parties, hope remain.
“There's life left in the labor movement, which remains the last, best hope for reversing skyrocketing levels of economic inequality and restoring some measure of justice and decency to the U.S. workplace,” said John Logan, director of the Labor & Employment Studies program at San Francisco State University.
Conceding that “organizing within the official National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) system is virtually impossible, and that organizing ‘outside of the law’ is extraordinarily difficult,” Logan nevertheless sees the revival of the NLRB last year as one of a handful of good-news stories about organized labor, along with the campaigns “Fight for 15” and “OUR Walmart,” the United Auto Workers’ struggle at Volkswagen in Tennessee, and the Bay Area’s “Retail Workers Bill of Rights.”
Such progress – such hopes – can fuel dreams like Dr. Martin Luther King had.
Cornell West in his new book about King, “The Radical King,” also recounts the leader’s vision beyond integration, voting and opportunity.
“His dream was for all poor and working people to live lives of decency and dignity,” West said.
[PICTURED: Photo from bluestatereview.com]