(TriceEdneyWire.com) – As the nation marks the 43rd anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, which occurred as a result of his intervention and support of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, it is important for the American public to remember the historic and continuing role of protecting and maintaining workers’ rights as part of civil rights progress. We all can continue learning from Dr. King’s leadership and teachings. As he stated on March 18, 1968, in the midst of a strike of 1,200 Black sanitation workers, “all labor has dignity.”
In contrast to Dr. King’s ideals, recent efforts by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and governors in other states to eliminate the gains obtained by public sector workers will have devastating consequences for racial minorities and civil rights progress. At the core of the civil and human rights movement is economic equality which is based upon civil rights enforcement and strong protections for working Americans.
Indeed, the impact upon state and local government job cuts would be particularly devastating to minorities, including women, as they account for a substantial segment of unionized public employment. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that 14.5 percent of all public sector workers in the nation are Black, and a total of 1.9 million African Americans are members of labor unions, with African-American men and women making up 14.8 percent and 12.2 percent of labor unions, respectively.
Black men and women union members have significantly higher incomes than non-union workers, which is greatly attributed to union protections provided through collective bargaining. Access to union membership is an effective way to address measures to improve economic security for minority workers and collective bargaining reduces the chance of persistent poverty facing many in the African-American community.
On April 4, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law stood with leaders across the country to protect the same human rights and human dignity of working men and women for which Dr. King gave his life on this day 43 years ago. We showed politicians and their allies that “We Are One” in the fight to protect the rights of working families and we will not be silenced. Nationwide, civil and human rights activists, union members and supporters, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, immigrants, religious supporters, students, women’s groups, and many others will contact their elected officials and hold community vigils, teach-ins, public rallies and workplace gatherings to demonstrate that workers’ rights are human rights that affect everyone, and that we will not let these rights be destroyed.
While we appreciate the need to address the critical shortfalls in state budgets, let us give serious consideration to the civil rights implications of current actions in Wisconsin and other states. The fight for workers’ rights is part of the larger struggle to achieve racial and gender equity in the workforce.
These principles should not be summarily dismissed as simply a consequence of budget shortfalls. In fact, a failure to adequately address these disparities undoubtedly will contribute to the continued shrinkage of the middle class. For African Americans, the numbers are particularly striking. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s “State of Working in America” report, 45 percent of those African Americans born into the middle class, were living in the bottom income level as adults. We should not forget that the existence of a strong middle class has helped spawn economic growth in this country and is important in the continued struggle for civil rights.
Furthermore, one of the most significant barriers to the progress of racial minorities is educational equity. Hence, the proposed cuts in Wisconsin and other states, especially those to teachers, who are a part of public sector labor unions, would exacerbate the already formidable fight for equal educational opportunities for all children. Our least appreciated leaders, teachers and others serving in the public sector should not shoulder the sole blame, nor the majority of the burden of the economic crisis much of this country faces. This is about ensuring that our children are taught by the best teachers, that our safety is in the hands of the best workers and that we are selecting from a well-qualified pool of candidates to serve in the public sector.
In these times of fiscal difficulties, all Americans should follow Dr. King’s example in prioritizing and supporting the critical rights of all workers to demand a fair and equitable workplace.
Barbara Arnwine is executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.