Apr 15, 2008

Slain civil rights leader's words inspire organized labor

LANSING -- "In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as 'right to work.' It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights."

Those words might have been spoken by a current labor leader as right to work laws are being pushed all over the country, including in Michigan. Instead, they were spoken by perhaps the most respected civil rights leader in the world, Dr. Martin Luther King, in 1961.

April marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of King in Memphis, Tenn., and organized labor has never forgotten that the revered civil rights leader was in Memphis April 4, 1968, to lead a march of city sanitation workers protesting against low wages and poor working conditions. King not only worked tirelessly for an end to racial discrimination, segregation and Jim Crow laws, but he also worked to improve the lot of workers and to end poverty.

The Young Democrats of America Labor Caucus, Lansing Democratic Future and Michigan Young Democrats hosted a community tribute last week to honor both King and the public employee unions.

"Dr. King shared organized labor's vision," said Michael Parker, the secretary/treasurer of Teamsters Local 580 in Lansing. "The things he fought for are the things we are fighting for today.

"He fought from a basis of love and not hate. We need to remember the person on the other side of the table is a person."

Philip Schloop, the business manager and international vice president of the International Union of Operating Engineers and a retired Detroit public school teacher, was the guest speaker. Schloop's parents were missionaries, and he said it was King's message that got him involved in the civil rights movement and organizing.

"The reality was he really understood the intersection between labor, civil rights and worker's rights," Schloop said.

He said King's words in 1961 are still relevant in 2008 as the assault on labor unions continues with so-called right to work (RTW) laws. Schloop said King called RTW a way to destroy unions and collective bargaining, and King called RTW a fraud.

"Here we are in Michigan today fighting a right to work assault," he said. "Dr. King realized way back in 1961 this was an assault on worker's rights."

Schloop said it was also telling that King was trying to help municipal workers on that fateful day in 1968. Schloop said state workers in Michigan were unfairly used as scapegoats in the state budget impasse last October.

"The Republicans are attacking public employees as the enemy," he said. "Who do you think teaches your children, who ensures you have clean drinking water and who protects the people?"

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