Last month I wrote about Martin Luther King’s last campaign, joining with Memphis sanitation workers to support their right to organize.
King was brought to Memphis by a local of the same union targeted more than 30 years later by Wisconsin’s governor, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. That’s where he died, murdered by an assassin’s bullet.
Amy Goodman, writing in Truthdig, suggested King’s spirit hovers over the demonstrations in Madison, which were sparked by the Wisconsin governor’s efforts to take away public workers’ collective bargaining rights.
The parallel is a potent one: both the mayor of Memphis and the governor of Wisconsin gained notoriety taking a tough line, refusing to negotiate.
One of the most striking aspects of the coverage of the demonstrations is the stark contrast between how the mainstream media talk about the showdown in Madison and how the demonstrators in the street talk about it. The media talks about budget deficits, politics and pension costs.
Ask the demonstrators why they’re in the street and they talk about fundamental unfairness – how workers and poor people have to sacrifice to solve the state’s budget crises while bankers who caused the financial crises that led to the state budget crisis continue to thrive without ever being asked to sacrifice.
Jane Hamsher, in Firedoglake, reminds us again how differently contracts that impact bankers are treated from those that impact working people. Remember those outrageous bankers’ bonuses? Those couldn’t be changed, we were told, because we are “a country of laws.”
But pensions for workers? Hey, we have a budget deficit to deal with!
Lots of people don’t have much connection or sympathy for unions, though the battles of union members contributed strongly to the development of the American middle class. Most people no longer have a grasp of that history.
That’s less true in Wisconsin, with its own long history of bitter labor struggles, full of many zigs and zags, ups and downs. The people there have less trouble connecting the struggles of labor unions to the well-being of the middle class.
More than 100 years ago, mill owners in Oshkosh crushed a strike and then had the leaders of the strike charged with conspiracy in an effort to crush the union. The workers brought in the famed firebrand trial lawyer Clarence Darrow to defend them.
In his closing statement, Darrow unleashed his full rhetorical arsenal. But his statement resonates with King’s Memphis campaign as much as it does in Madison, and helps put them in perspective. The case, Darrow insisted, was “but an episode in the great battle for human liberty, a battle which was commenced when the tyranny and oppression of man first caused him to impose upon his fellows and which will not end so long as the children of one father shall be compelled to toil to support the children of another in luxury and ease.”