An increasingly frequent meme among Republicans in Wisconsin and elsewhere is that public employee unions erroneously refer to their collective bargaining "rights." No, shout the Repubs, collective bargaining is not a right, it's a privilege. And now, thanks to the current hegemony of wingnut Republican legislators, public employees in Wisconsin have (excepting some police and fire unions) far fewer such "privileges." All this from some of the most privileged elites among us, who, meanwhile, increasingly push to turn their own vast set of government-backed boons into permanent rights (Take away tax cuts for billionaires? Horrors!).
This anti-unionism is sad, tragic and ironic, coming from the same partisans who in recent years have tried to appropriate the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some of them literally claim he was a Republican, and thus a member of the party that favored "true" civil rights against relatively conservative southern Democrats (while ignoring the fact that it was one such Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, who almost single-handedly engineered the 1964 Civil Rights Act). The revisionists edit King's words to imply he wouldn't be in favor of many modern civil rights laws. But of course, these are the same dudes who want you to think FDR opposed public employee unions, a conclusion they arrive at by -- as in the case of King -- mouthing only a very little of what FDR said while ignoring the larger, contrary context.
Regarding Dr. King: What did he really think about that rights-versus-privileges idea? Well, as it turns out, the GOP Ministry of Truth is especially egregious in its rewrite of Dr. King. After all, many of our constitutional (ahem!) rights were codified only after years of informal privilege, bestowed upon the people by the people themselves, until their increasing numbers forced legislators to catch up. Indeed, if conservatives in both major parties hadn't intervened, every citizen of America would, right now, have the right to a family-supporting job, thanks to FDR's proposal for a second bill of rights. Yes, that would be the same FDR who supposedly was against working-class laborers.
In Dr. King's case, it's very instructive to remember this: On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis. He had traveled there to stand with AFSCME sanitation workers demanding their right to bargain collectively.
That's right. Dr. King's last moments alive were spent fighting for the right of workers to organize -- a right then resisted by government in Tennessee. If Dr. King were still alive and similarly stood with public employee union protests in Wisconsin and Ohio, governors Scott Walker and John Kasich would oppose him. Instead, their political party feels free to re-appropriate the slain civil rights leader's words and misrepresent his views.
Conservatives focus wholly on King's gargantuan efforts to win civil rights protections for black Americans. They ignore his equally determined push to win civil rights for rank-and-file workers, the people who really get stuff done in this country. King supported the right to bargain collectively for wages, benefits and working conditions. His goal: Family-supporting jobs, workplace dignity and a better democracy. Likewise, when Caesar Chavez organized poor, migrant field laborers into the United Farmworkers union, he, too, was promoting civil rights and labor rights.
The bottom line -- and this is often overlooked by weary, distracted, beseiged minorities who have never known the value of being in a worker's union -- is that there's huge overlap between general civil rights and labor rights. If you can be exploited, fired without cause, underpaid and literally worked to death, you have far less chance of obtaining a life-sustaining, family-supporting job. You may even become a wage slave. Simply put: Democracy is all about collective action. To oppose labor unions is thus to oppose democracy.
Without the vigorous protests of nascent labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American laborers in general -- even non-unionized laborers -- would not now have the 40-hour work week, overtime, rievance procedures, worker disability compensation, or many other workplace protections many conservatives prefer to suggest simply trickled down from corporate penthouses, without provocation.
Chavez boiled down the issue in his ultimately successful call to workers. "Make a solemn promise: to enjoy our rightful part of the riches of this land, to throw off the yoke of being considered as agricultural implements or slaves. We are free men and we demand justice."
And, as Dr. King said, and used as the title of his book, "All labor has dignity."
So say we all. Or, at least, so say we all should.
Note: the anniversary of Dr. King's death will be April 4. AFSCME will hold nationwide events honoring Dr. King's legacy and his efforts on behalf of organized labor. Check this web page for details: http://www.we-r-1.org