MEMPHIS, TN - Wisconsin's budget law removes key rights Memphis sanitation workers fought to get when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 43 years ago today, a labor history professor says.
"The two things Gov. [Scott] Walker took away from public employees in Wisconsin were collective-bargaining rights and union-dues collection," University of Washington Professor Michael Honey told The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal AHEAD of pro-labor "We Are One" rallies, teach-ins and vigils in state capitals, including Madison, Wis.
"Those were the exact two points around which the Memphis strike revolved," Honey said. "Mayor [Henry] Loeb absolutely refused to engage in collective bargaining. He said, 'You can have a union ... we just won't bargain with it,' which means your union is useless.
"And secondly, 'We'll never deduct dues from your wages.' He knew that was crucial for this group of workers because they were so poor that, if it wasn't deducted from their wages, it was really hard to get the dues money from them," Honey said.
About 1,300 black members of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees staged a 64-day strike for improved wages, working conditions and union recognition Feb. 11 to April 12, 1968.
King took an active role in mass meetings and street actions March 29 to April 4, 1968, when he was assassinated at Memphis hotel.
"Translating that to today, if your union can't bargain for you, why would you pay dues?" Honey said. "And it was the same thing King was fighting in Memphis."
Honey spoke at a Washington rally. Civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was with King when he was assassinated, spoke at the Madison rally at the state Capitol. AFSCME Local 1733 will march to Memphis's government plaza.
Some Tennessee Republican state senators, including Lt. Gov. and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, back a bill to strip teachers of collective-bargaining rights. Their effort mirrors similar efforts in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and other states where lawmakers have targeted public employee unions.