John Nichols The Nation
Speaking of legal and practical barriers that Southern states and cities erected to the organization of trade unions—especially in the public sector—King said: “If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
King, whose legacy is honored nationally next week, often spoke of the link between organized labor and the civil rights movement. He recognized that the cause of freedom needed allies, and that unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the United Auto Workers were key allies in the struggle. The unions shared in that recognition, and do to this day.
Unions from the North were strong enough to provide meaningful support for the civil rights struggle because right-to-work laws had been blocked in the Northern states arrayed around the Great Lakes and into New England. Like the vast majority of states that fought to end slavery in the nineteenth century, and that elected representatives (Republicans and Democrats) who opposed segregation in the twentieth century, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Indiana rejected proposals to limit collective bargaining rights. Democrats and Republicans in these states recognized that strong unions, like strong businesses, were necessary to economic and social progress.
Now, however, Republicans in traditionally pro-labor states have begun to attack the rights of workers and their unions. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich went after public-sector unions, signing laws that took away collective bargaining rights from teachers, nurses, snowplow drivers and, in Ohio’s case, firefighters and police officers. Ohio reversed the assault at the polls last November, voting 61-39 percent to overturn Kasich’s law, and Wisconsinites will on Tuesday announce that they have collected more than enough signatures to force Walker and his cronies to face a 2012 recall election.
...The fierce opposition seen during 2011 to attacks on collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and other Northern states confirmed that the anti-union “momentum” is not coming from workers in those states. They know that restraints on public-sector unions and right-to-work laws have harmed the quality of wages and benefits, undermined workplace safety, and limited the voice of working people in the public spheres of states such as Alabama and Mississippi. They know today, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. did in 1968, that embracing the race-to-the-bottom mentality favored by Wall Street speculators and hedge-fund managers prevents the arc of history from bending toward economic and social justice.
King’s last march was with African-American public employees in Memphis, who were oppressed not just by segregation but by right-to-work laws that were written with the purpose of keeping workers divided and powerless. We honor King today by opposing the new push for right-to-work laws in Northern states and by campaigning to overturn the right-to-work laws passed decades ago by the Jim Crow legislatures of Southern states that were determined to prevent the arc of history from bending toward justice.