In what is being hailed as a national Day of Solidarity, hundred of thousands of teachers, nurses, students, clergy, firefighters and other workers from across the nation will hold "We Are One" demonstrations to show support for Wisconsin union employees to demand a stop to overreaching policies by Republican lawmakers trying to balance budgets on the backs of public workers.
The observance comes on the 43rd anniversary of the murder of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was unceremoniously gunned down outside a Memphis, Tenn., hotel. He was in town planning a demonstration in support of sanitation workers seeking collective bargaining rights.
"Dr. King went to Memphis to stand with sanitation workers demanding their dream, the right to bargain collectively, for a voice at work and a better life," Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said during a conference call with reporters last week.
"Today that fight goes on," he continued. "Remember the simple placards they wore — 'I am a man' — to signify that they deserved respect for the work that they did and the way they helped this country. [Today] it's for fair pay. It's a fight for dignity in retirement. And it's a fight for respect on the job. And quite frankly, this is a fight to preserve the middle-class way of life. And we want to commemorate his life and legacy while calling on working people to continue to stand together."
The period of solidarity began over the weekend, on April 1, with worship services and culminates today with the Day of Solidarity. The events come on the heels of a measure signed into law last month by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker that significantly reduces collective bargaining rights for public employees and requires workers — except police officers and firefighters — to pay more for pension plans and health care premiums.
The Wisconsin law sent waves of shock across the nation and mobilized pro-labor forces in ways that have not been seen since the civil rights era. Protesters stormed the capital to protest the bill; Democratic lawmakers fled the state to stave off the passage of the measure that ultimately was signed into law without them. Now it is held up in an interminable court battle over its legality.
But Wisconsin is not alone. To reduce their budgets, Republican lawmakers are seeking to make changes to collective bargaining rights in Ohio, Indiana and other states.
"In Ohio, 20,000 workers came together to fight back against a bill to take away collective bargaining rights," Trumpka said. "In Indiana, working people held the largest rally in the state's history, and in events across the country, people stood up to say we're all in this together. There is an engagement and enthusiasm that has been absent for a very long time."
This is a critical time for working families on the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of King, said Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO. "His fight for economic justice and the American dream for all resonates now more than ever," Baker said.
Not everyone agrees. Charles Butler, a Republican black Tea Party member who hosts the radio show The Other Side on Chicago's WVON, balked at the demonstration. "The AFL-CIO's fight is to keep from being labeled irrelevant,'' he told The Root. "But let's be real. The labor and suffrage movements were about white people. So for these people to hold a mass demonstration on the anniversary of King's death is hypocritical.
"My father was a union man," Butler continued. "He couldn't get certain jobs, even in a union shop. Blacks were excluded from the higher-paying jobs. I used to hear stories at the dinner table about how a white man would walk in off the street with no education from Tennessee, Kentucky and Appalachia and get a job as an electrician, or a tool-and-die man. But my father had to struggle to get into one of those skilled trade jobs, which paid a lot of money. Today things are a lot worse, and [the unions] need to be dismantled."
Unfair treatment of black workers was very much on King's mind 43 years ago in Memphis, where he was in the midst of organizing the demonstration to stand in solidarity with striking sanitation workers. The protest was the culmination of months of mistreatment. In February 1968, two black sanitation workers had been crushed to death when a trash truck malfunctioned.
In a separate incident on the same day, 22 black workers had been sent home without pay because of the brutal weather, while their white supervisors remained on the job with pay. Two weeks later, thousands of workers joined forces to fight for job safety, better pay, benefits and union support. They also fought against then-Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb's indifference to their plight.
The effort unified blacks and whites and brought King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the front lines. But violent protesters on the side of the sanitation workers interrupted King's first demonstration in March, and he was forced to go to court to reschedule the event. After an agreement was worked out in the courts on April 4, a peaceful march was planned for April 8.
As lawyers prepared to inform King of the court agreement over dinner on that fateful April 4 evening, he was assassinated as he stepped out of his hotel room, changing history and uniting the civil rights and labor movements as never before.
"We know that Dr. King spent the last day of his life speaking out against those who would deny workers the right to collectively bargain," Baker said. "During the last year of his life, Dr. King put justice for the poor and working-class people at the center of his agenda. He challenged the country to create an economy of full employment or, lacking that, a tax system that ensured a decent level of income for every American."
In that spirit, Trumpka said unions would not bow to political pressure today.
"On April 4, we are going to continue this fight," he said. "We are going to declare that we truly are one. I've had enough."
Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.