In MLK rallies, unions to stress collective bargaining as civil right

The labor movement is organizing rallies across the country on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to make the case that collective bargaining is a civil right. 

Union leaders are trying beat back legislation and ballot initiatives across the country that are similar to the new law in Wisconsin that ends collective bargaining rights for public employees.

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They hope that the MLK rallies — scheduled for the April 4th anniversary of the leader’s death — will attract supporters beyond the union rank-and-file.

King was leading protests for sanitation workers' collective bargaining rights in Memphis, Tenn., when he was assassinated in 1968.

“What we are trying to do is make sure that this is about workers. This isn’t about, if you will, unions. We are not just focused on our union and on our members,” Harold A. Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), told The Hill. “This is a fight that we are taking on that’s really about the middle-class and protecting and allowing the middle class to grow.”

Though Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) was successful in ending collective bargaining rights for state workers, union officials have celebrated the slide in his popularity in recent polls. They believe the fallout will discourage other Republican governors and state legislators from following in his footsteps.

In a speech last week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Walker should receive the “Mobilizer of the Year award” from the labor movement.
 
“This struggle erupted over collective bargaining, but we know even more is at stake. It's immigrant rights, it’s safety on the job, it’s education, it’s health care, it’s retirement security, it’s a chance at a decent life, and it’s the American Dream that all of us deserve,” Trumka said.
 
The AFL-CIO is planning rallies, protests and other events across the country on April 4.
 
The coordinated events are an attempt to leverage the thousands of people — many of whom were young, non-union members, according to labor leaders — who showed up in support of collective bargaining rights in Madison, Wis. Similar protests have sprung up in several other states, such as Indiana and Ohio, to protest legislation that impacts unions.

Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, said, “as the polling has shown, people have an inherent belief that workers should have rights.”
 
To capture what happened in Wisconsin and build off it nationally, Stern said labor needs to avoid being lumped with one political party or one particular institution, whether it’s business or government.
 
“Unions' challenge here is not to be thought of another institution, but just as people, because that is where the sympathy lies,” said Stern, now a senior research fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. “The labor movement cannot get trapped in the Democratic or Republican space. It has to be a voice for everybody on work.”
 
Despite the newfound confidence, labor realizes they have a huge battle on their hands. Union officials point to dozen of states that are considering legislation and ballot initiatives that affect unions.
 
Speaking to the IAFF’s legislative conference Monday, Naomi Walker, the AFL-CIO’s director of state government affairs, said that includes several typically pro-labor states, equaling a substantial threat to unions.
 
“We are facing fights and attacks in more states than I have ever seen. I think this is probably the most serious threat to the labor movement in 30 or 40 years,” Walker said.
 
In a memo distributed to reporters Tuesday by the AFL-CIO, union officials pointed to a number of proposed bills that could limit labor significantly.
 
For example, right-to-work bills — which ban agreements between employers and unions that include mandatory union dues — have been introduced in several states, such as Maine, Missouri, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Alaska, Tennessee and Indiana.
 
In addition, legislation that prohibits paycheck deductions to pay for unions’ political activities has been or will be introduced in dozens of states.
 
Further, project labor agreements, which include prevailing wage laws on taxpayer-funder infrastructure projects, have begun to be repealed in several states.
 
In her presentation, Walker noted that even if anti-union legislation is defeated, labor leaders expect ballot initiatives targeted at unions will then be introduced and have to be dealt with possibly during the all-important presidential election year of 2012. The union official said it points to a strategy to shrink labor’s resources when they will likely be needed the most by candidates on the campaign trail. 
 
 “This is clearly a strategy by the right wing to try to distract us and get us focused on these other threats, force us to put all our volunteer time and energy into these ballot fights instead of working to elect pro-worker candidates,” Walker said.
 
Also speaking at the IAFF conference Monday was Jon Erpenbach, one of the 14 Wisconsin Democratic state senators who left the state in an attempt to block Walker’s bill.
 
Erpenbach told firefighters that what happened in Wisconsin was not the end but the beginning of more legislation aimed at labor.
 
“If it hasn’t come to your state, it is going to be coming to your state real soon. You need to stand proud. You need to stand strong,” Erpenbach said. “There are a lot of Governor Walkers out there. There’s probably one in your state right now.”