Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Connecting the Dots: MLK and Unions

Even if you're one of those people who doesn't keep up with (or who has purposely tuned out to) the news as of late, chances are you've probably still at least heard something about the thousands of people protesting the anti-union efforts of the new Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio.  Folks are camping out in state capital buildings, interrupting legislative sessions, talking about kicking the new Republican governors out of office and the whole nine.  The people have spoken.  And they are royally pissed off.

With all of this clamor, one might wonder "so what's the big deal?"  So some Republican governors want to get rid of the unions that represent state workers...so what?  State workers don't need unions, right?  They'll be fine on their own.  Why do we need unions anyway?  What's so good about them?  Maybe the Republican governors are right.  Let them kill the unions if they want to.  Who cares?  

Well, we know for a fact that one person who actually would care about the union trouble up in Wisconsin and Ohio right now is none other than the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hopefully many of you history buffs recognize the picture up above.  It is the infamous picture taken by photographer James Louw of Rev. Ralph Abernathy and others standing on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968 pointing out the location of the shooter just moments after Martin Luther King, Jr. was fatally shot in the head.  As many of you know, yesterday (Monday) was the 43rd anniversary of the death of MLK.  And as many of you undoubtedly know, MLK was an icon of the civil rights movement.  But what many of you may not know is why MLK was in Memphis in the first place.

On March 29, 1968, MLK went to Memphis to support a union.  And not just any union; a public worker's union that was fighting for the rights of public employees.  A few weeks prior to his arrival, on March 12, 1968 the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) local union chapter 1733 had gone on strike for fair wages and better treatment of its municipal garbage workers.  The union told MLK about what was going on and King gladly accepted their invitation to come and lend his support to the union's cause.

The union that King supported - and ultimately died for - is the exact same type of union that Republican governor Scott Walker successfully passed legislation against in Wisconsin a few weeks ago.  Walker's measure took away the collective bargaining rights for any state unions in Wisconsin.   Governor John Kasich seeks to do the same thing in Ohio.

Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized the importance of collective bargaining rights for public employees.  Without collective bargaining rights, it is impossible for unions to argue, for example, on behalf of police officers for better bullet proof vests from the state or argue on behalf of teachers for better pay from the county or argue on behalf of garbage workers for better health coverage from the city.   In other words, collective bargaining rights for unions allows public employees to ensure that they have a collective voice at the negotiating table of the government for which they work.

So the next time you are wondering why we should care about what happens to public unions, just remember why Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Memphis.
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