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In the path of Dr. King

President 1199Seiu United Healthcare Workers East | , George Gresham | 8/31/2011, 4:38 p.m.
George Gresham, President 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East

his week, we commemorated the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of one of our nation's greatest citizens, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Few, if any, have done more to call our nation to its stated ideals.

King holds a special place in the hearts of our members. He often said he considered himself an 1199er. And in his last address to an 1199 gathering, just weeks before we lost him to an assassin's bullet, King said: "I'm often disenchanted with some segments of the power structure of the labor movement. But in these moments of disenchantment, I begin to think of unions like Local 1199 and it gives me renewed courage and vigor to carry on. And I would suggest that if all of labor would emulate what you have been doing over the years, our nation would be closer to victory in the fight to eliminate poverty and injustice."

We cite this not to boast. On the contrary, King's words are not merely a high compliment but are a profound challenge. Shortly before his death, he challenged 1199 to spread the union gospel to poor hospital workers, especially in the South but throughout the nation. We took up the challenge and the late Coretta Scott King, King's widow, accepted the position of honorary chair of that campaign.

As we launched the organizing campaign, we said that the best way to honor King was to continue to follow the path he had forged. What does that mean today? King drew his last breath fighting for poor African-American sanitation workers in Memphis--workers who were referred to as boys and treated like chattel. The workers' fight was to form a union and bargain collectively for basic rights. A union card, for them, represented a ticket to dignity and some measure of economic security. Their eventual victory stands as a proud landmark in our nation's labor and civil rights history.

Today, with the steep decline in industrial union membership, service and public workers unions make up the majority of organized labor. As such, they represent the most important counterweight to the corporate greed and corruption that has sunk our economy, impoverished our communities and left millions of our sisters and brothers homeless and jobless.

To destroy, or at least cripple, opposition to these injustices, the corporate elites and their right-wing Republican disciples have taken aim at public workers and their unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and at least a dozen other states. Though public unions are in the crosshairs, all those who seek economic justice and equality are targets. So King's path should most certainly lead us to stand in solidarity with these workers--a large percentage of whom are women and people of color.

At the time of his death, King also was in the midst of his Poor People's Campaign. He frequently cited two Americas: one of the "haves" and the other of the "have-nots." Today the disparities have widened. Incredibly, the 400 richest Americans have more wealth than the bottom half of the U.S. population--more than 150 million Americans.

To address the severe economic downturn created by Wall Street, those of us on Main Street are told to tighten our belts and share the sacrifice. Elected officials demand sharp cuts to all social programs, from prenatal care through education to Social Security.

But while we're told to sacrifice for the good of the nation, the corporate elite and the captains of industry commit economic treason. Specifically, the nation's largest corporations do not pay one single penny in taxes. Bank of America, General Electric, Exxon-Mobil and other giant corporations, incredibly, received tax rebates in 2009.

This besmirches King's legacy, and it is our responsibility to help rebalance the scales. I'm proud that we at 1199 SEIU have joined hands with our progressive allies in the One Nation movement to help correct these injustices and help realize King's dictum, "The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice."