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Op-Ed: Remember King's fight for workers

Kris LaGrange's picture
Jan 14, 2014

Nassau County is nearly broke, and to deal with its budget problems, County Executive Edward Mangano is looking for major concessions from county employees. In Suffolk, County Executive Steve Levy has been playing hardball with his workforce since 2004. In Albany, new Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has made it clear that the state's workforce will be reduced, and he wants pay freezes, too.

It's fashionable these days to attack public employees, their unions, their retirement funds and their benefits. With the state in financial trouble, the target is just too irresistible. And too few leaders are stopping to ask if attacking public employees and taking away their benefits is morally OK.

But this is just the kind of question we should ask ourselves as we celebrate the life of civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Are we heading in the right direction, as a nation that treats its people with dignity and respect? What about economic justice for the American worker?

Forty-four years ago King went to a Memphis picket line to support striking sanitation workers. These public employees staged a union walkout to demand equal wages and fair working conditions. Back then, the City of Memphis paid black workers significantly lower wages than white workers.

The bitter fight for workplace progress continued for some time, so King returned to Memphis again to address a gathering of workers and the community at the Mason Temple. That's where King delivered his final speech.

With the striking sanitation workers proudly in attendance, his famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech inspired not just those in attendance, but the nation as well. The next day, King was assassinated.

It's important that modern-day union members and working people remember that unions helped provide the civil rights movement not only with resources, but also with the numbers and the moral authority to help fight the injustices and inequalities of the past. Today's union members should be proud of this heritage, and remember that they are part of something bigger.

The 1950s saw 35 percent of the American workforce organized into unions, and many among those numbers lent support to the civil rights movement. Now, with only 7 percent of the American workforce organized, who is lending support to those leaders who ask us to question our moral code? Does the decline in unions' numbers lend power to those who look to take away economic justice from the American worker?

Racial bigotry, hatred and intolerance still exist. Not just in the South, and not just in nonunion shops where workers' rights are frequently trampled, but almost everywhere.

The popular perception is that public employees have it good - and certainly compared with the striking sanitation workers in Memphis four decades ago, they do. While their wages are generally lower than private sector workers, their hours are set and their benefits are some of the best in the workforce. In the private sector, meanwhile, wages are generally higher, but they often come with disappearing retirement benefits and second-rate health insurance. These resentment-causing differences divide the American workforce, pitting the interests of private and public sector workers against each other.

Next to the injustices that King fought, however, this divide should be manageable. We should consider his example and fight for moral, fair treatment for all workers.

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