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Public workers mark King Day

Remembering Martin Luther King’s support for labor, a new rank-and-file group of public workers is marking his birthday with a march for jobs and public services.

jones01Public Workers Unite! will rally at the offices of the CTA, 567 W. Lake, at 11 a.m. on Monday, January 18, and march through downtown, past City Hall and the Commercial Club (and stopping at the offices of corporations that have received public largesse), and ending up at the Board of Education, 100 W. Randolph.

The group was formed largely by members of transit, teachers, and welfare workers unions who felt the need to push back against “a one-sided class war by the rich that has public employees in its sights,” said Steve Edwards, an activist with the welfare workers union.

Effective resistance “won’t happen if we just carry on lobbying our representatives,” he said. “We’re trying to the extent we can to move it back into the streets.”

It was in the streets where Memphis sanitation workers backed by King took on the local power structure, forty-plus years ago.  They held daily marches and mass meetings to protest degrading and dangerous working conditions and the city’s refusal to bargain with black workers.  “I’ll never be known as the mayor who signed a contract with a Negro union,” said Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb III.

Twelve days after King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, under national pressure, Mayor Loeb signed.

Today public workers face what Edwards calls “creeping privatization” and attacks on pension funds they’ve paid into steadily while politicians have raided them.  The CTA is planning to cut 1,000 transit workers next month, CPS is poised to announce another round of school closings, and welfare workers face two or three times the workload that’s considered manageable, Edwards said.

PWU calls for taxing the rich, ending the wars, expanding public services, stopping privatization, labor law reform, and health care and pensions for all.

Edwards says it reflects central aspects of King’s legacy — that some would prefer to overlook.  He reads off what he says is his favorite quotation from King:

“For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values, a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”

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Category: history, labor

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