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Escalate Action': Big Labor Co-Opts MLK Jr's Legacy, Rallies for Collective Bargaining at 100+ 'We Are One' Protests


"...nothing less than evil. Dr. King would not agree with this."

Across the country today, labor organizers and activists are holding hundreds of "We Are One" rallies and 'teach-ins' to defend the collective bargaining rights of union members. "I stand in solidarity with teachers, firefighters, nurses and all under attack by governors and state legislatures," is the rallying tweet of the AFL-CIO, an organization heavily involved with the We Are One rallies.

According to the We Are One website, the activists chose today (April 4th) for their rallies because that is the day, over fifty years ago, that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, where he had gone to stand with sanitation workers demanding their dream: The right to bargain collectively for a voice at work and a better life. The workers were trying to form a union with AFSCME.

Are the unions co-opting MLK Jr's legacy?

Absolutely says one black reverend. "I believe that Dr. King is turning over in his grave today," says one reverend who says that he was born on an Alabama plantation. Speaking on the Neil Cavuto show, Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson observes, "I participated in the civil rights movement, I did sit-ins...for Jesse Jackson and others to take [MLK Jr's] movement, to take his purpose and use it for personal gain, I have to say Neil, is nothing less than evil. Dr. King would not agree with this."

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Nonetheless, We Are One activists are rallying today in the name of Dr. King:

Join us in solidarity with working people in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and dozens of other states where well-funded, right-wing corporate politicians are trying to take away the rights Dr. King gave his life for: the freedom to bargain, to vote, to afford a college education and justice for all workers, immigrant and native-born. It’s a day to show movement. Teach-ins. Vigils. Faith events. A day to be creative, but clear: We are one.

The We Are One materials, as evidenced by the last paragraph above, contain a palpable animus towards all-things Republican.

In the "Toolkit for Campus Teach-Ins," the introductory remarks includes the statement "These Republicans are attacking all of us":

The attacks on workers’ rights in Wisconsin and across the country and the tremendous uprising of grassroots activism in response provide us with the best opportunity in decades to seize the momentum and the national debate. Turning the challenge of the Republican, right-wing and corporate attacks into opportunities for movement building will take education, coalition building and action.

While this “Wisconsin Moment” started with politicians’ attacks on public workers and their ability to collectively bargain, it should be no surprise that the same politicians (backed by CEOs and corporations that funded their election campaigns) are attacking decent wages,unions and programs that help working families in every form. They are coming after Project Labor Agreements, prevailing wages and infrastructure funding while backing destructive measures like so-called “right to work” and paycheck deception. And many of them are the same people who are attacking voting rights for students, working to make higher education less affordable by raising tuition and cutting financial aid and opposing the simple fairness of the DREAM Act.

The NAACP said of the We Are One rallies: “Like the meanspirited leaders in Memphis in 1968, too many of our elected officials today are trying to divide workers in the private sector from our public servant workers like teachers, police officers and health care workers. We can’t let them get away with it.”

As mentioned, part of the We Are One protests involves a "teach-in" component at university and college campuses nationwide. These teach-ins, I think, are supposed to elicit memories of the late 1950s-early 1960s "sit ins." The union members, I suppose, feel that the right to collective bargaining is analagous to the basic civil rights that black Americans were brutally denied in an earlier period of our country's history. Whether that analogy holds any water or not--I don't think it does--is a topic for another day. For now, what's interesting to note is the warlike language the teach-in organizers are using:

Wall Street Banks, American corporations and their political allies have declared a one-sided war on the American people. This war is being waged at our schools and colleges, on public employee unions, in our workplaces and in our communities.

The teach-ins are "a call to learn, a call to escalate action," the website notes. The toolkit suggests various topics for discussion at the teach-ins:

  • Workers’ Rights as Human Rights: The State of Our Freedom to Join Unions and Bargain Collective
  • The Republican Attack on Workers’ Rights and Collective Bargainin
  • The Real Roots of the Great Recession and State Fiscal Problem [editor's note: corporate greed alert!!!]
  • Political Action: How Students, Teachers and Other Workers are Fighting Back

The toolkit also suggests some talking points:

This is not about the budget—it is more of the same old politics.

This is political payback to corporate CEOs who spent more than $1 billion to elect politicians last fall. While we suffer, the same politicians support tax breaks for corporations and ceos.

These same politicians are attacking voting rights for students, working to make higher education less affordable by raising tuition and cutting financial aid and opposing the simple fairness of the DREAM Act.

We need to focus on creating jobs and restoring the middle class. Our firefighters, teachers, college faculty and nurses are critical members of our community. Corporations are trying to weaken or eliminate workers’ freedom to join unions and bargain so workers can’t serve as a check on corporate greed to restore balance

A national "teach in" will be held--and live-streamed--tomorrow in New York City, featuring Cornel West and Frances Fox Piven. They will be discussing austerity, debt, and corporate greed--and what you can do about it! Get excited.

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Glenn Beck will be covering the rallies on his show this evening.

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