New York, NY – It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the 31st day of the government shutdown that has robbed 800,000 working Americans of their jobs — how easy it is to revile Donald J. Trump for his relentless attack on American workers, their families and so much else — but what about the corrupt, wholly undemocratic system that ultimately cost Dr. King his life and made the obscenity of a Trump presidency even possible?
How much has really changed when, for example, a half century after Dr. King was assassinated championing striking sanitation workers in Memphis, largely Black and Latino sanitation workers in the Bronx have to spend MLK Day fighting to recover back pay from “the bosses”?
How much has really changed when a telecom giant can thumb its nose at striking IBEW Local 3 workers and their families for nearly two years?
On MLK Day three years ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo told working men and women in Harlem, “It’s not just that you feel like you’re going backwards — you’re not crazy — you are going backwards.”
Indeed, things have only grown progressively worse for working people since the days when the corporate kleptocracy reveled in the Vietnam War and Dr. King openly feared the “spiritual death” of the nation.
But who’s really paying attention to the systemic problems? In 2016, union households knew intrinsically that the system — the same corporate, war-loving system that Dr. King opposed — had failed them. Desperate, they turned out in large numbers for a ridiculously transparent charlatan promising “Only I can fix it.”
Two years until the next presidential election cycle, and already the parade of opposing candidates promising only they can “fix Trump” has begun.
Who among them however, is picking up Dr. King’s mantle and confronting the systemic inequalities and anti-worker bias endemic to the U.S. corporate state? Who among them can pick up Dr. King’s mantle without the authentic, enthusiastic support of the American worker?
In 1961, Dr. King told members of the Transport Workers Union, “We could never win the freedom struggle without the help and concern of organized labor.”
Nearly six years ago, Harry Belafonte, legendary activist, entertainer and close confident of Dr. King — took part in panel discussion along with labor leaders at the SUNY Queens Education Opportunity Center in Jamaica, Queens, where he lamented the loss of “radical thinking” inside the American Labor Movement.
“What happened to radical thinking?” Belafonte said. “What happened to the labor movement? How did the opposition run away with all of this, leaving us here in a place of frustration, anger and hopelessness?”
Although battered, beaten and beset by ongoing inner turmoil — the American Labor Movement has, since then, demonstrated that it is interested in continuing the freedom struggle once more. Most notably in the Fight for $15 movement and nationwide teacher strikes.
Back on April 4, 2015, members of the unionized construction trades teamed up with fast food workers in New York City fighting to lift the minimum wage for all low-wage earners.
“Today’s the day that Martin Luther King got assassinated while he was in Memphis fighting for sanitation workers trying to form a union,” Chaz Rynkiewicz, director of organizing, Local 79 Construction and General Building Laborers, told LaborPress. “We’re very proud and honored to be part of the fast food workers campaign. We have the same problems in the nonunion construction industry as they do in that industry.”
In Paris, and other cities throughout Europe, they have not waited for someone to take up the mantle for working people — they have donned their yellow vests and taken to the streets demanding substantive changes to the system. The last thing the corporate state that Dr. King stood up to wants to see here in the U.S. — is a united working class. In or out of yellow vests.
“Labor can play a major role just like it did back in 1968 when they had the Sanitation Strike [in Memphis, Tennessee],” Local 372 President Shaun Francois I told LaborPress in 2017. “We need to get back to basics and take it back to the streets like out forefathers and foremothers before us. Our president has a moral responsibility to set the mood of peace — instead of igniting violence in this country. We are a divided people of minority groups. Labor can play a part in organizing a coalition by recruiting like minded groups and bring them together for a majority.”
Sounds just like what Dr. King would have wanted.