By MARTIN LUTHER KING III
Forty-three years ago my father, Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated while he was in Memphis, Tenn., supporting a strike of municipal sanitation workers. It was, in his eyes, more than a quest for a few more dollars in a paycheck. He saw the strike as part of the great struggle of his time – a struggle for democracy, for truth, for justice and for human dignity.
These are the same basic reasons that my father would be joining with millions of other Americans today in supporting public employees in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and other states, where collective bargaining is now under attack.
Martin Luther King Jr. would be marching for democracy: During the 2010 election campaigns in Wisconsin, the Republican candidate for governor did not honestly present his plan to effectively eliminate collective bargaining; he waited until after the election. As a result, the voters never had the chance to examine the plan in detail or to hear an open debate on the issue. When they entered the voting booth, the citizens could not know what they were voting for. When voters are deceived about the actual policies a candidate plans to enact, democracy is undermined just as surely as if they are physically prevented from casting their ballot.
The abuse of democracy was compounded when newly elected Gov. Scott Walker introduced massive corporate tax reductions that vastly increased the state deficit and then presented the increased deficits as the “emergency” which justified measures to permanently eviscerate unions. A candidate can openly advocate that corporations should not pay taxes or that unions should be abolished in all but name as a matter of basic social policy, but he cannot truthfully present the second measure as being caused by an emergency beyond his control when it is largely a direct result of his actions.
Martin Luther King Jr. would be marching for truth: The most famous public employee in Wisconsin today is a bus driver who earned $160,000, an example presented as the “smoking gun” proof of overgenerous union contracts. Yet the actual starting salary for bus drivers in Madison is $17 per hour, and after 36 years, this driver was making $26 hourly. His “high” pay was the result of more than 2,000 hours of overtime on nights and weekends at time and a half. His straight-time salary was not even $50,000 a year.
To present this atypical case as proof of exorbitant union pay recalls memories of false stereotypes, such as the “welfare queens driving Cadillacs” of previous decades, a reprehensible distortion designed to whip up animosity toward both African Americans and social programs. The example of the $160,000 bus driver is a very similar distortion, though targeted more to build resentment against public employees and government spending.
Martin Luther King Jr. would be marching for justice: In the debate over the Bush tax cuts last fall, conservatives vehemently argued that it was grossly unfair to impose 1990s-era tax rates on people with incomes above $200,000 because such people were not really affluent. Yet today, bus drivers who make $50,000 and teachers who make even less are vilified as social parasites who are outrageously overpaid.
Wall Street traders are said to be morally entitled to large six-figure bonuses because of the sanctity of their contracts, but the contracts of teachers and bus drivers are described as empty pieces of paper that should be voided at will. Behind this cynical double standard lies the condescending contempt of a privileged elite toward people who work hard and punch time clocks.
Martin Luther King Jr. would be marching for dignity: The fundamental purpose of unions has always been job security and protection from arbitrary firing, not simply larger paychecks. Before unions, workers would “shape up” before factory gates and beg to be chosen for a day’s labor.
In the past some state governments that were unable to offer wage increases in negotiations offered in their place long-term fringe benefits that later proved fiscally unsustainable. In recent years, municipal unions have again and again negotiated “give-backs” through collective bargaining that substantially reduce these benefits but preserve workers’ rights to representation and basic human dignity.
In Wisconsin, the unions conceded to all of Gov. Scott Walker’s financial demands in the earliest days of the conflict, only to find that his covert agenda was not fiscal prudence but their complete evisceration.
On April 4, the anniversary of the assassination of my father, I joined thousands of Americans of all races in the nationwide “We Are One” demonstrations supporting America’s public employees, trade unions and working people in a common quest for jobs, justice and decency for all citizens. In this endeavor, we seek the support of all Americans of good will.
Martin Luther King III is president and CEO of The King Center based here in Atlanta.