Labor union bosses and congressional Democrats are tying their battles in Wisconsin and Ohio to the 43rd anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King was shot on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., while helping the city’s black sanitation workers in a strike.
“For Dr. King, economic justice was an essential element of his work for civil and human rights, which is why, on the day his life was taken, he was in Memphis, Tennessee, supporting striking sanitation workers as they sought to have their union recognized by the city,” Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said on a conference call on Monday morning. “On the eve of his death, Dr. King delivered a speech to these workers that came to be known as the ‘Mountaintop Speech,’ in which he preached that if they stayed strong and resilient, they would one day achieve economic security and the chance for opportunity.”
Referring to Tea Party movement, Henderson said, “opportunists are trying to manipulate the facts surrounding the nation’s economic troubles,” in order to “gain a political advantage in the next election cycle.”
“What we’re witnessing is nothing short of an ideological assault on Dr. King’s vision for a more just and equitable nation,” Henderson said. “So, how will ordinary Americans respond to this effort to hijack the American Dream?”
Henderson and other self-described civil rights group leaders like NAACP president Benjamin Jealous and labor union leaders launched what they call an “organic, grassroots,” campaign, “We Are One,” this week. Henderson said their pressure campaign will consist of more than 1,000 “discrete community and workplace-focused actions,” including “more than 150 ‘teach-ins,’ hundreds of worksite mobilizations, community forums, vigils marches and more.”
It’s all part of an effort, though, to frame King’s assassination as a result of his involvement in the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike – an implication that he died fighting for collective bargaining, not against racial inequality.
King’s niece, Dr. Alveda King, told The Daily Caller her uncle really wasn’t in Memphis because it was a strike – he got involved in the strike because of racial discrimination. Black sanitation workers were treated unfairly compared to white ones, and, in fact, all 1,300 strikers were black. The unfair treatment led to the death of two black workers, too, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed in a mechanical malfunction.
“My uncle was in Memphis, not specifically because of the union strikes but to help bring an end to oppression of the garbage workers which was racially driven,” Alveda King said in an e-mail.
Alveda King told TheDC that her uncle wouldn’t likely side with anyone in the partisan games in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states. “Dr. King’s answer to oppression and racial discourse was never bureaucracy whether in the government, private sector or in labor disputes,” Alveda King said. “His solution was always for people to work together in love and treat each other with dignity and respect. What is missing today is the spiritual aspect that allows all of us to work together as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
While preaching nonviolence and racial equality in his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech in Memphis, King made only a small reference to the strike. He didn’t use any of Big Labor catch phrase terms: collective bargaining, wage, pay, union or labor. When King did mention the workers’ mistreatment, he framed it as an issue of injustice, along racial lines, and as a way to show how their violent protesting actions led them to lose the press as an ally – the Memphis strikers were one of the first to ever go against King’s nonviolent mantra.
“The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers,” King said. “Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that.”
On Monday’s conference call, Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, and Rep. Gwen Moore, Wisconsin Democrat, framed the fights in their statehouses and others as battles over “civil rights” and “opportunities” instead of collective bargaining.
“Yes, the debate in statehouses across America is about collective bargaining, but it’s really about rights and opportunity and the future of the middle class,” Brown said, after explaining how he thought King died in Memphis because, “he always was concerned with worker rights, human rights, and, in many ways, all rolled into one.”
Brown framed the debate as a class war, taking a shot a people who make more than $100,000.
“American families are burdened by new attacks on their rights,” he said. These are not six-figure salaries along with all kinds of benefits.”
After saying “the martyrdom of Dr. Martin Luther King is packed with fighting for jobs and justice,” Moore said Republicans’ budget plans are a “trifecta” of human rights violations.
“One is to strip the middle class of their earning power and their voting power through collective rights,” Moore said. “Second in the trifecta is to inflict budget cuts that are so deep that wound the recovery and threaten 700,000 jobs, according to economists, with H.R. 1, the Continuing Resolution which cuts $61 billion. The third trifecta, which is very, very near and dear to me, is to really eviscerate the rights of the most vulnerable, those women and children.”
Neither Moore nor Brown responded to TheDC’s request as to what they thought of American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten making about $430,000 annually in salary and benefits, and how the average union boss makes about that or more. They wouldn’t say whether they though it was fair that union bosses were making hundreds of thousands more annually than the workers they purportedly represent, nor would they say if they thought it would be fair for those union bosses to give parts of their salaries back to workers from previous years.
Weingarten, who was on the Monday conference call with Brown, Moore, Henderson and others, told TheDC she took a pay freeze and expects corporate executives to do the same. But, she did not respond to a follow-up in which TheDC asked her if she’d take a pay cut to the average teacher salary when she lifts her pay freeze or if she’d give the excess money back to the teachers.
“Early this year, the AFT officers, including myself, as well as our managers, took a voluntary pay freeze,” Weingarten said in an e-mail to TheDC. “We did so because we understand the economic distress our members are experiencing, and the school cuts they are facing. Unlike in the corporate sector, my salary, benefits and expenses are fully disclosed. I strongly believe that my members and the public have a right to know this information. One wonders why corporate America is not this transparent.”
The comparison to “corporate America” is a false dichotomy, though, because labor union members, especially teachers, have no choice but to join their unions – and pay unions, which end up funneled into union bosses’ salaries and political campaigns, among other places. Weingarten would not respond to TheDC’s request as to why she made the comparison.