Remembering Martin Luther King

Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr was assassinated April 4, 1968, 45 years ago this week at the relative young age of 39. He was not a socialist. Indeed, as a preacher, he would not be eligible for memberhip of the World Socialist Movement’s political parties. Yet like many before and after him he contributed to the struggle for the emancipation of the people. His dream is our dream. Martin Luther King Jr. is associated with the positive messages of peace, brother/sister-hood and social and economic equality for all people.

Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis on April 4 protesting for safe jobs with a living wage. Echol Cole and Robert Walker had been crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. Garbage collectors earned wages so low many needed food stamps to feed their families. King was fighting for sanitation workers, regardless of race or color. He was a union man.

“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old age pensions, government relief to the destitute and above all new wage levels that meant not mere survival, but a tolerable life.”

And here is another of his quotes we rarely hear.

“The captains of industry did not lead the transformation to social progress; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shore not only itself but the whole society.”

King was quick to see through those right-wingers demanding more “right-to-work” states. Here’s how he described it:

“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as “right-to-work”. It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. …Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone. Wherever these laws have passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are few and there are no civil rights”

“Union meant strength and union recognition mean the employer’s acknowledgement of that strength, and the two meant the opportunity to fight again for further gains with united and multiplied power. As contract followed contract, the pay envelope fattened and fringe benefits and job rights grew to the mature work standards of today. All of these started with winning first union recognition”

Politicians are aggressively challenging the right of public employee unions to bargain collectively. They rationalize their attacks on unions by saying unionized public workers are unfairly privileged. But they only look privileged by comparison to the rest of the working class, which is suffering economic catastrophe and has almost entirely lost the benefits of unionization. Opponents of public worker unions pit the people who use the public service against workers by arguing that wage increases must be paid for by tax rises, service cuts or increased prices. Yes, encouraging envy and passing on the blame is an easy means to divide and rule.

The ritual invocation of “protecting the public” hides a great deal. It obscures the fact that different economic classes exist under that label, with different interests. These “austerity” measures principally involve the cutting of pensions and welfare benefits to millions of people, the lowering of wages—the impoverishing of most of the population. These demands for the need for “sacrifice” are part and parcel of an effort to make the profit system seem inevitable: to make it seem that economics based on anything other than using earth and humanity for some individuals’ private gain is unthinkable. And therefore, senior citizens, robbed of pensions, must go hungry to save the profit system. Children must go without medical care and with insufficient clothing and food to save it. When you think about it, who is striking against the public—the politicians who cut services to the poor or elderly or the unions who mobilize against those cuts? Who is extorting the people —the corporations who threaten to close factories and re-locate by out-sourcing or the workers who are committed to the communities they live in?

The power of labor and the right to strike matters. Workers, whether public or private sector, strike when we believe we have no choice. We can march and demonstrate, lobby and vote, but there are times when we must throw all of our power, i.e., our ability to disrupt a company or a city, into a fight. Sometimes that fight is to improve our wages and benefits. These days it seems it’s mostly to defend what we’ve won in the past.

Malcolm X, once said, “I am on the side of justice, whomever side it’s on.” Incidentally, he too was gunned down at the same age 39, 3 years before Dr. King’s murder