Archive for Monday, April 4, 2011

MLK fought for labor rights now under attack

April 4, 2011


Once upon a long time ago, a tired man faced an audience of public workers. They were on a wildcat strike, demanding the right to bargain collectively and to have the city for which they worked automatically deduct union dues from their paychecks. The city’s conservative mayor had flatly refused these demands.

“You are doing many things here in this struggle,” the tired man assured them. “You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor.” Too often, he said, folks looked down on people like them, people who did menial or unglamorous work. But he encouraged them not to bemoan their humble state. “All labor has dignity,” he said.

Forty-three years ago today, that man was shot from ambush and killed in Memphis, Tenn. Martin Luther King’s last public actions were in defense of labor and union rights.

One wonders, then, what he would say of Wisconsin.

Or Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Florida or any of the other places where, like a contagion, the move to weaken or effectively outlaw unions has spread. One wonders what he would make of a conservative governing ethos that now defines public employees — teachers, police officers, firefighters — as the enemy.

Actually, we need not wonder what King would have said, because he already said it. In the speech quoted above, he warned that if America did not use its vast wealth to ensure its people “the basic necessities of life,” America was going to hell.

The Baptist preacher in him reared up then, and his voice sang thunder. For all the nation’s achievements, he roared, for all its mighty airplanes, submarines and bridges, “It seems that I can hear the God of the universe saying, ‘Even though you have done all that, I was hungry and you fed me not. I was naked and you clothed me not. The children of my sons and daughters were in need of economic security and you didn’t provide it for them.”’

It will come as a surprise to some that the civil rights leader was also a labor leader, but he was. He had this in common with Asa Philip Randolph, who suffered long years of privation to establish the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. And with Walter Reuther, brutally beaten when he organized sitdown strikes that helped solidify the United Automobile Workers. And with Crystal Lee Sutton, inspiration for the movie “Norma Rae,” who lost her job for trying to unionize a textile plant in Roanoke Rapids, N.C.

These people and many others fought to win the rights now being taken away.

Granted, those rights have sometimes been abused — used to shelter the incompetent or reward the greedy.

But to whatever degree our workplaces are not filled with children working adult hours, to whatever degree an employer is required to provide a clean and safe workplace, break time, sick time or fair wages, that also reflects organized labor’s legacy.

It is instructive that this campaign to roll back that legacy is contemporaneous with a New York Times report on how General Electric earned $14.2 billion in profit last year, yet paid no U.S. taxes. Indeed, the Times says, GE netted a tax benefit of $3.2 billion.

What’s it tell you that some of us are on the offensive against working people, but breathe scarcely a peep when a giant corporation somehow slips through government-provided loopholes, paying no taxes? If need is a character flaw, what, then, is greed?

In some sense, we have traveled 43 years forward to get back where we were in 1968. King would doubtless find that sobering. One is reminded of the axiom about those who will not learn from history. One is reminded of the quote about the price of freedom.

And one is reminded of a song Billy Preston sang in the summer of 1973. “Will it go round in circles?” he asked.

Apparently, it already has.

— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on His email is


Paul R Getto 7 years, 2 months ago

Good column, Mr. Pitts. This debate is as old as civilization and will continue as we move on. Once the power was all in the hands of the king. The workers who supported the lifestyle of royalty have worked for centuries to gain some rights and stability. The current movement is just the latest chapter.

Bob_Keeshan 7 years, 2 months ago

This will drive the usual suspects around here nuts.

Flap Doodle 7 years, 2 months ago

There are several threads with very high comment counts, but the actual number of comments is much lower. I expect somebody is engaging in hijinks again.

Jonathan Kealing 7 years, 2 months ago

No, it's a banned user throwing a temper tantrum. All those comments have been made, they're just invisible.

woodscolt 7 years, 2 months ago

Thats easy blame it on someone who doesn't really exist?

pace 7 years, 2 months ago

Thank you for sparing us.I can just guess. lol

devobrun 7 years, 2 months ago

Can you not only make invisible the comments, but also the count? That way the banned user is completely nonexistent. I find that if I have missed a thread and it contains truly 200 entries, I avoid weighing in. I can't read all the comments and therefore, I will be entering a going discussion.

However, if the number is around 50 or less, I might weigh in. Thus, the count previously was useful to me. Now it isn't.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 2 months ago

And some people are just more equal than others, right?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 2 months ago

Under the law of the jungle, for which you so strongly advocate, it's big dog eats little dog-- equality isn't a factor.

Bob_Keeshan 7 years, 2 months ago

No you don't. You think your personal rights should come first, then the law. You're an anarchist.

Scott Drummond 7 years, 2 months ago

It will be interesting to read your response to the inevitable equal protection lawsuit that will be brought in Wisconsin on the part of the unfavored public employee unions. Governor Walker and the republicans in Wisconsin seem to disagree with you.

jhawkinsf 7 years, 2 months ago

Are some people more equal than others? Well, I might just say yes if we judge a person by their acts and accomplishments. In this article about MLK, we are judging a man by his accomplishments. Should we judge him "equal" to say Charles Manson? Of course not. They are not equal because in every way we judge people, those two will be polar opposites. Perhaps at birth we are all equal but the path we choose determines who is more equal than another.

kugrad 7 years, 2 months ago

It would be more accurate to say the private sector, aka the business class, is at war against the working class to secure even more of the wealth for themselves at the expense of everyone else.

oldvet 7 years, 2 months ago

I'm just doing this for your own good, Luke...

jhawkinsf 7 years, 2 months ago

Kugrad - Not a war, just a competition.

kugrad 7 years, 2 months ago

Those working in the government by and large represent the business class. One can't even become elected without being fairly wealthy and/or having the support of business. Virtually the entire state and federal governments are endebted to the business interests that funded their campaigns. To pretend that these few people, the actual politicians, represent a class of their own is silly. To pretend that they don't represent the business interests that essentially put them in office and keep them there is disingenuous. Trying to group those who work for the government in the same group as the actual elected and appointed officials is ludicrous and far removed from the reality of the situation.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 2 months ago

If working people are too lazy to vote or too stupid to vote for their own economic interests, then they deserve what is coming their way.

If gay marriage, abortion, elites, and guns are more important to working people than their own economic interests, then they deserve what is coming.

There is nothing magical or special about working people. They are part of an economic system that is based in competition. Until they realize this, their economic conditions will continue to decline.

They will deserve it.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 2 months ago

You know as well as I do. List them yourself.

Paul R Getto 7 years, 2 months ago

"Somehow working for the mafia organization that is government turns people into angels that should be given whatever they desire." L-O: Remember the old joke? What's the difference between the government and the Mafia? The Mafia is organized. There are ocassions when I tend to agree with some of your ideas, but the gold standard? Come on...........

Scott Drummond 7 years, 2 months ago

What makes pretty yellow rocks so special?

pace 7 years, 2 months ago

Most of my personal heroes are men and women who just go to work, take care of their family and are good neighbors. It isn't easy, it takes courage, stamina and heart. They deserve support of reasonable work place safety, protection that they are paid at the end of the work week, their promised pensions aren't sold or dissolved by crooks and they are respected. Their taxes should go to school and infrastructure and service, not to corporations because the corporations play golf with congresspersons.

pace 7 years, 2 months ago

kind of a reach, telling people to use private schools rather than redivert tax money from corporate coffers back to public schools. Your mind is like a whirl pool, like a flush.

pace 7 years, 2 months ago

I don't agree with your anarchist militia type of thinking. We should use taxes for schools and infrastructure.

Scott Drummond 7 years, 2 months ago

Because collectively we can get better service at a better price more easily.

Other than that...

devobrun 7 years, 2 months ago

"General Electric earned $14.2 billion in profit last year, yet paid no U.S. taxes. Indeed, the Times says, GE netted a tax benefit of $3.2 billion."

So where did the money go, Mr. Pitts? To shareholders in the form of a dividend. And the shareholders payed taxes. Or to R&D, and the money went to contractors, engineers, scientists and other workers. They paid taxes. Or the money went to corporate executives. Well, a few hundreds of millions maybe, but not 14 thousand million bucks. And the executives paid taxes on it if it was actually turned into income. And the executives bought a new yacht and paid a worker to build it. And those workers paid taxes on that money.

Yes Mr. Pitts, it does go 'round in circles. The money isn't the issue, it is the power. If workers get more, then they have more power via unions. If executives get more then they can buy the politicians. Money isn't bad and when it flows 'round and 'round it does everybody good. Ah, but when the money sticks in one place it doesn't work.

When it goes to pay social security, medicare, medicaid and debt and military bills, it doesn't work. It doesn't produce, it just keeps us alive.

We are just staying alive and not doing a very good job of that. Our debt in this country is massive. There is a very real chance that everybody's savings will disappear in about 2 or 3 years. This isn't 1968, Mr. Pitts. If the workers in Wisconsin don't take pay cuts, they will be out of a job. I think it is too late as it is. I think that we will all be out of a job in about 3 years.

kugrad 7 years, 2 months ago

Tom Shewmon calling someone else "A strict ideologue" - now that is truly the pot calling the kettle black.

jafs 7 years, 2 months ago

Hate isn't good for you.

Or anybody around you.

tunahelper 7 years, 2 months ago

pitts is the biggist racist in the country. if you disagree with him, he calls you a racist. typical whiney leftist name calling.

ivalueamerica 7 years, 2 months ago

In honor of the 100th anniversary of all the children who died in the triangle factory fire....bringing forth child labor laws...

Maine has introduced a bill to roll back child labor laws including allowing children as young as 14 to work 50 hours a week and more hours during the school year.

And lower their minimum wage to as low as $5 an hour.

You may not like pits, but do you hate him so much that you think children should be returned to sweatshops?

booyalab 7 years, 2 months ago

I don't think MLK endorsed the rights of largely white union workers to establish wage floors so that non-white laborers couldn't work in their industry.

"One of Congress's goals at the time was to stop black laborers from displacing whites by working for less money. Missouri Rep. John Cochran said that he had "received numerous complaints in recent months about Southern contractors employing low-paid colored mechanics." And Alabama Rep. Clayton Allgood fretted about contractors with "cheap colored labor . . . of the sort that is in competition with white labor throughout the country."

ivalueamerica 7 years, 2 months ago

booyalab, yes, there clearly was a racist history throughout all aspects of America, including the labor movement.

However, you would be completely dishonest if you did not admit that labor integrated long before many other institutions.

booyalab 7 years, 2 months ago

Doesn't matter when labor stopped being racist, if that's totally true...which I doubt, the point is that if you can find one immoral exception to a "right"...then it's not universal and no one can be compelled to accept it unequivocally.

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