Remembering Dr. King  

This weekend is the rememberance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Although he is most remember as a civil rights leader, I remember him most for his fight against Poverty.

We have ancient habits to deal with, vast structures of power, indescribably complicated problems to solve. But unless we abdicate our humanity altogether and succumb to fear and impotence in the presence of the weapons we have ourselves created, it is as possible and as urgent to put an end to war and violence between nations as it is to put an end to poverty and racial injustice.

When he was murdered (which always sounds much more scaring and real than Assassination to me, I wonder why), he was on a mission to end poverty in America. We have yet to meet that goal. But during that time, he spoke of economic freedom, worker's rights, in general, he spoke of the American condition.

In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, as 'right-to-work.' It provides no 'rights' and no 'works.' Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining... We demand this fraud be stopped.

What is often left out of the discussion about race in this country is how the owners of industry use Americans of color and immigrants to break unions and pit worker against worker. This, of course, is an example of scabbing.

Scabbing seems to have been almost a cottage industry in this country. Movies like The River, On the Waterfront, or the Replacements glorify the worker who must take a job to save his farm, take on corrupt union bosses, or to play a game they never thought they could. You know, man against the mountain themes. How very noble.

I personally have found that movies like Norma Rae, Matewan and Harlan County Wars, had much more realistic looks at what an organizing drive is and the kinds of things bosses and owners are willing to do just to prevent workers uniting.

Now, since I've brought it up, let's look at Matewan.

In an effort to break the miners' union, the mine owners brought in immigrant Italians and blacks from the south. The movie uses an organizer's voice to discuss the issues of race and strike breaking and does so in the same breath

"You think this man is the enemy? Huh? This is a worker! Any union keeps this man out ain't a union, it's a goddam club! They got you fightin' white against colored, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain't but two sides in this world--them that work and them that don't. You work, they don't. That's all you get to know about the enemy." - Joe Kenehan

The longshoreman took a similar approach:

...had to go into the whole question of Blacks. I said, "Look, fellas, the only way these guys ever got a job was as scabs. The bosses saw to that. Let's right now say, `You've got a job as a working stiff. No discrimination.'"

It wasn't pretty in 1934 when Harry Bridges talked about discrimination. It wasn't easy getting the longshore gangs (teams) to see scabs as equals. But they did it. They did it by isolating the scab gangs and bringing the gangs into the union, one by one. By the 1936 strike, there would be no more scabbing. Bosses couldn't use race baiting to pit whites and blacks against each other. They had to acknowledge the union and learn how to work with them.

Being in a union, organizing, working for workers' rights, it's what everyone of us should be doing. Like Valerie Taylor

I just did what I thought was necessary. I didn't feel like I was doing anything more advanced than anybody else, but somebody had to speak out. What's that saying about being ashamed to die if you haven't done some good for humanity or some such thing like that? I kept that in the back of my mind. Working to make this a better world for having lived in it has been my philosophy...

The history of the labor movement is a long bloody one. It was common place for local authorities to beat, raid and murder union activists or simply to make it possible for mobs to lynch men like Wesley Everest

The IWW was aggressive in recruiting and organizing, radical and offensive (to employers) in its literature. The chain of events that led to what has been called the "Centralia Massacre" probably began in 1915 when vigilante action against the IWW first took place in Centralia. Men looking for work and food were run out of town by "special policemen" who helped the authorities rid the town of the Wobblies. The Centralia Chronicle praised the "public-spirited" citizens for keeping the city clear of these people. Centralians mirrored the national sentiment about the Wobblies: they were considered "troublemakers, thieves, liars and bums." According to many newspaper editorials of the day, the IWW intended to destroy America's economic system. They were not entirely wrong-the IWW called for the abolition of the wage system in favor of then-unheard-of, worker-owned businesses.

In May of the year that would see the end of World War I, members of the Centralia Home Guard and Elks marched in a parade to raise money for the Red Cross. The marchers broke ranks in front of the IWW hall and raided it, throwing furniture, records and Wobbly literature into the street and setting it on fire. A desk and phonograph from the hall were auctioned off and the money donated to the Red Cross. The men inside the hall were "lifted by their ears" into a truck, driven out of town where they were forced to run the gauntlet while being beaten with sticks and ax handles....

[again] The hall was raided; the Wobblies defended their hall, and two legionnaires were killed. When Wesley Everest who was was armed and inside the IWW hall tried to make his escape, he shot two of the men who were pursuing him. Now there were four legionnaires dead. The need to exact instant retribution overcame the survivors; Everest was captured and almost hanged before he was taken to jail. That night the power was cut off in Centralia and Everest was taken from the jail there to a bridge over the Chehalis River and hanged.

I read stories like that of Wesley Everest and Harry Bridges and I think of Dr. King. The idea that both Everest and Bridges brought to this fight so long before Dr. King came to even be a whisper in the wind was that of fighting for what was right. Taking a stand and not backing down. These men knew what solidarity meant, they lived it, breathed it, they embodied it. And as I remember Dr. King this weekend, I also remember that we are all in this together, that

the poorest people in our country today, on the whole, are working every day. But they are earning wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. We have thousands and thousands of people working on full-time jobs, with part-time incomes.

Long live Harry Bridges, Wesley Everest and Dr. Martin Luther King.

These quotes and other Dr. King quotes are available here.


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  • faboo  
    2:07 AM

    Gosh, the more things change...I read that thinking of how day laborers are treated here in SoCal. In the south is a different story as blacks and Latinos are vying for these jobs. I'm in uniformed and simplistic view, I think that if these people could get together and create a union without undercutting one another everyone would be better off.

    Of course, that runs into the illegal immigration argument. I have friends who's dads were day laborers and they were here legally or even born here, so I have a very distorted view of that. I've never looked at day laborers as undocumented workers.

    Then I think of people like my friends who are union workers in one field (something in the entertainment industry usually) and still need to have one or two other jobs just to live paycheck to paycheck. I wish that I could point to King's speech and make them a little less self-absorbed. While they're bewailing this writer's strike and their loss of income, maybe they'll understand why crossing the picket lines of the grocer's strike wasn't a good idea. Maybe the next time talent, the bus drivers or teacher's strike, they'll get why they need to stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellow workers.

  • The Union Girl  
    3:30 PM

    The problem with being in a union in the states is that unions are barred from secondary boycotts. A secondary boycott is a general strike. Of course, it doesn't stop anyone from turning around and walking away from Wal-Marts or UFCW grocery strikes.

    When anyone, union or not, makes the choice to cross the line, it's like they're saying, "hey, you don't matter, give it up." That's when I go back to the quotes from this story, especially Dr. King's "In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, as 'right-to-work.' It provides no 'rights' and no 'works.' Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining."

    I suppose my greatest wish is that we'd all think before we do. Of course, that's easier said than done.

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