Friday, March 18, 2011

Not a Perversion of History
Martin Luther King and public sector unions

Today, Friday March 18, 2011, Fox News daytime host Neil Cavuto had a lot of important stories to cover in only an hour. Neil talked with a foreign affairs expert about a recently passed UN Human Rights Council resolution that included Iran and Venezuela’s criticisms of the US on human rights. He discussed the Libyan uprisings with a woman who lost three of her family members in the Lockerbie bombings. Neil also commented on the US roll in the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya.

Towards the end of the hour, he talked with tea party leader Lisa Fritsch about recent comments made by Richard Trumka that they both disagreed with. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, a large labor union, announced plans for protests across the US on April 4th, 2011 by invoking Martin Luther King. “Join us to make April 4, 2011, a day to stand 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.” Lisa Fritsch said that these statements were “perverting, twisting, and lying about what Martin Luther King really stood for” and that, “there is a difference between equality (of opportunity) and entitlement.” She also said

“Do they even know why he marched on March 18th? It was because two black workers were injured and sent home and not paid while the union workers were paid. They have no idea the history that they are invoking to promote themselves. It’s really base and disturbing.”

I decided to delve into the past to see if these claims were accurate.

In 1968, garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee had it rough. Workers were required to lift tubs that leaked maggots on them. Black workers were called “boy” by their bosses and were often sent home without pay for minor infractions. Two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death when they went into a garbage truck to escape the rain.  They weren’t injured, they had died. Memphis garbage workers went through all of this for just $1.70 an hour. On February 12, 1968, the workers went on strike to improve their working conditions, require the city to recognize their union, and raise their pay…to $2.35 an hour. (Source: The American Prospect)

So the garbage workers were rallying to create a union, not because non-union workers were being discriminated against compared to union workers. Before the strike, there was no union.

Throughout March and April Martin Luther King rallied with the workers of Memphis to show his solidarity with their struggle and to bring national attention to the story. On April 3rd, 1968 Martin Luther King was shot while he was standing on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. (Source: The American Prospect)

Martin Luther King gave his life for many causes that were controversial at the time, one of which was the right for public sector workers to collectively bargain. Thus the governors of many Midwest states are trying to take away at least one of “the rights Dr. King gave his life for,” as Trumka proclaimed. Thus Trumka’s statement is not, “perverting what Martin Luther King stood for,” as Lisa Fritsch claims.

As for her statement that, “there is a difference between equality of opportunity and entitlement,” she is absolutely right. However, Martin Luther King supported both. MLK called for a guaranteed national income that would be, “pegged to the median income of society, not the lowest levels of income(Source: The Nation). This idea is a cousin of the minimum wage. But King’s support for a high national income places him far to the left of any politician that is active in politics today. This is clearly a call for entitlement, even if the money is to come from businesses rather than the government. Personally, I disagree with a guaranteed national income because if labor were to become drastically more expensive to businesses they wouldn’t hire as many workers.

MLK was also highly critical of inequality of outcomes, “Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes... God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty” (Source: The Nation). To claim, as conservatives often do, that King merely advocated for an end to discrimination to allow for the equality of opportunity is blatantly false. King supported aggressive policies to combat poverty to compensate for America’s history of racial discrimination and because he felt vast inequality was an injustice in itself.

So, Lisa Fritsch was wrong both in her assessment of the historical accuracy of Richard Trumka’s comments and in Martin Luther King’s views on inequality. Her inaccuracies of the Memphis Strike where MLK was assinated shows that she has no idea the history she is invoking. It’s really base and disturbing.

I suspect this will not be the last time that conservatives misrepresent Martin Luther King’s views on labor and inequality.

P.S. The union that was created by the striking Memphis garbage collectors was an AFSCME union. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) was founded in Wisconsin in 1932. Now, AFSCME unions in Wisconsin are fighting for their right to exist after Scott Walker signed a law that ended collective bargaining for public sector workers.

P.P.S. Here is a link to a NPR StoryCorpse segment on the Memphis strike.

Originally posted March 18th, 2011

UPDATE: Glenn Beck presented similar distortions on Martin Luther King's views on public sector unions in reaction to the Trumpka's invitation to protest on Martin Luther King Day. Ed Shultz did an awesome takedown of that segment.  On Martin Luther King Day, both Fox News hosts continued to present the same distortions. Media Matters documents all of these incidents here.

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