Friday, April 1, 2011

American workers accomplished great things when they organized

Monday will be the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr's assassination in Memphis. It's worth noting every year, but it's especially worth noting this year, why King was in Memphis on that date: He was there to support city sanitation workers appealing for better wages, benefits and working conditions. The city, we may recall, said it couldn't afford its workers' requests.

King knew, as we know today, that what we CAN afford and what we CHOOSE to afford is often separated by the paper-thin wall of political will. It was illustrated at a rally last month in Columbia that South Carolina is, in fact, a wealthy, wealthy state, when we consider the volume of business done here and the profitability of our corporate neighbors.

In a column published in Memphis's newspaper today, though, the president of the National Education Association focuses on the work done by organized labor to improve life for average working people in America. The president is Dennis Van Roekel and his words speak for themselves, so here they are:

At that time King had already helped win passage of landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he realized that removing legal barriers alone would not bring about equal opportunity and economic justice for African-Americans. He recognized that workers of all races -- including public employees like the Memphis sanitation workers -- would have to use their collective strength to win a fair deal for themselves and their families.

Organized labor played an important role in the civil rights movement. One of the greatest American labor leaders was A. Philip Randolph, who organized African-American railroad workers into the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in the 1920s. He drew on his experience as an organizer to plan early marches on Washington, D.C., protesting racial segregation and discrimination. These demonstrations paved the way for the 1963 march and rally where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Unions such as the United Auto Workers also provided financial support to the civil rights movement, and the National Education Association merged with the all-black American Teachers Association in 1966 -- a move that was controversial in many areas of the country, especially the South.

Private-sector workers had won the right to organize and bargain collectively during the Great Depression, but public workers wouldn't gain the same rights until the late 1950s and '60s. Like the civil rights movement of the same era, the emerging power of public workers would improve the lives of African-American families.

Public jobs had long been a mainstay of the black middle class. Workers with education and skills encountered less discrimination in public agencies than in many private companies, and even unskilled black Americans could often find work in sanitation or other public services. That is why King saw the sanitation workers' strike as part of the struggle for civil rights.

Today African-Americans are still more likely than people of other races to work in public jobs. About 17 percent of white workers in the United States are public employees, compared with almost 21 percent of all black workers and 23 percent of black women. Overall, the public sector is the leading employer of black men and the second-leading employer of black women.

We can't ignore that history or those statistics today when we see public workers and their rights under attack in state after state -- including in Tennessee, where the legislature is considering a bill to weaken the bargaining rights of teachers. If King were still alive, he would no doubt say that attacks on public workers are an attack on the African-American middle class -- and he would be right.

The politicians behind these attacks are trying to stoke resentment of public employees and other union members among workers who aren't represented by a union. But no American should resent a neighbor for earning a decent living. Instead, middle-class Americans should be concerned about the widening gulf between an ultra-wealthy elite and everyone else.

In our country today, 5 percent of the people hold almost 64 percent of the wealth, and 1 percent receive almost a fourth of the total income.

The New York Times recently reported that General Electric paid no federal income tax in 2010 despite making $14 billion in worldwide profits. Meanwhile, more people received food stamps last year than ever before, and more than one out of every five children in the United States lives in poverty.

At the time of his assassination, King was fighting to correct this kind of economic imbalance. He knew that unions -- including public unions like the Memphis sanitation workers -- were a critical part of that struggle.

"The labor movement," he said, "was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress." That holds true for all American workers, but especially so for African-Americans.

By the way, for those who argue that labor organizing is a patently evil and unproductive force, consider the news from Aiken today. Rob Novit of the Aiken Standard reports that, after less than a month of negotiating, organized workers at the local Owens-Corning plant won a new agreement and have returned to work:

An employee of the Teamsters Union Local 509 office in Aiken said the company returned to the negotiating table with a revised proposal. Workers approved a new three-year contract Monday and were back at work the next day.

Union representatives could not be reached for comment Thursday. Jason Saragian, an Owens-Corning spokesman at the firm's corporate office in Toledo, Ohio, said the company offer improved the plant's competitiveness and was fair to the employees. He declined to discuss details of the original offer and how the subsequent negotiation differed.

"The offer was modified in a mutually agreeable manner," Saragian said. "We're pleased they ratified it."

Union Local 509 president L.D. Fletcher said after the strike started that the Aiken plant has 90 employees with 75 of them union members. Each plant negotiates separately with its employees, and the large majority of union employees rejected the original contract, he said.

Employees said at the time that the company originally had proposed freezing pensions for workers younger than 60 and reducing salaries of some future employees by $5 an hour. The initial proposal, they said, also included a $1,500 bonus in the first year and raises of 1 percent and 2 percent the next two years.

It would appear that working people can still accomplish great things when they work together.

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