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“A crisis from which we bleed” –Martin Luther King, labor and wealth inequality

January 18, 2016 by

Throughout his life Dr. King recognized the dangers of economic inequality, both because its sting is disproportionately felt by African-Americans and as a barrier to democratic participation.  Dr. King was as concerned with wealth inequality as we are today.  He told a labor audience in 1962: “I think about the fact that right here in America, one-tenth of 1 percent of the population controls almost 50 percent of the wealth” and mused “there is something wrong with a situation that will take the necessities from the masses and give luxuries to the classes.”  And so I was troubled to read over the weekend an article* reporting that in 2016 the richest 68 individuals own more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s entire population – more than the poorest 3.5 billion of us.

Dr. King consistently sought an alliance between the labor and civil rights movements – even at times when his efforts went unrequited.  In 1961 he powerfully described why he made the effort: “The duality of interests of Labor and Negroes makes any crisis which lacerates you, a crisis from which we bleed.”  In that address he recognized that the rise of “right-wing” ideology and wealth inequality presented an existential threat, explaining “as we stand on the threshold of the second half of the twentieth century, a crisis confronts us both.  Those who in the second half of the nineteenth century could not tolerate organized labor have had a rebirth of power and seek to regain the despotism of that era while retaining the wealth and privileges of the twentieth century.”  This crisis, which is now at fruition, is the nightmare to Dr. King’s dream.  Today America has a greater racial wealth gap** and educational segregation*** than in 1968, and labor rights are equally under threat.

Indeed, last week the Supreme Court heard Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that seeks judicial imposition of “right-to-work” in all public sector collective bargaining.  A major bankroller of Friedrichs are the Koch Brothers, who are among the world’s richest 68.  Their father, Fred Koch was a segregationist and actively involved in the early “right-to-work” movement.  The racist past of the “right-to-work” movement is well documented****, having its roots in the fear that the CIO unions actively organizing the South would integrate southern workplaces through the union shop.  Dr. King recognized the Trojan-horse of so-called “right-to-work,” stating “we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work,’ a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.  Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining… We demand this fraud be stopped.  Our weapon is our vote.”

The goal of the Friedrichs lawsuit, which is bankrolled by organizations funded by the Koch brothers, is to weaken organized labor, consolidate political power in the elite and broaden income inequality.  Recognizing that “our weapon is our vote,” the Koch brothers are also major funders of voter suppression***** and the successful legal efforts to roll back the Voting Rights Act, a law enacted following the Montgomery Bus Boycott and King’s march to Selma.  It is as true then, as it is now, that we bleed from this state of affairs.

In 2016, an election year, our labor movement has the opportunity and the imperative to broaden alliances and to reach out and empower our natural allies.  We can only rebuild our own influence if we rebuild the influence of all people who are stung by the institutionalization of wealth inequality and the agenda that its benefactors foist on us.









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