Unions, Allies, March for Jobs, Voting Rights on King March 50th Anniversary

WASHINGTON—Echoing the same themes as they did 50 years ago, thousands of unionists and their civil rights allies marched to the Lincoln Memorial on August 24, demanding jobs and freedom, particularly living wage jobs and voting rights.

More than a dozen unions sent contingents to the march, organized by the National Action Network, a civil rights group, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s. famous March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.

The Steel Workers, Utility Workers, AFSCME, the Amalgamated Transit Union, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the Communications Workers, the American Federation of Government Employees, the Laborers, the Office and Professional Employees, the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers and the Auto Workers were among the unions that sponsored and sent contingents to the August 24 march.

Scheduled speakers included Teachers President Randi Weingarten, Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel and AFSCME President Lee Saunders.

The 1963 march drew 250,000 people and was a key event pushing for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  But its demand for good jobs, especially for African-Americans, has been lost in commemorations in succeeding years, which have concentrated on civil rights issues.

In the run-up to this march, organizers again had to concentrate on civil rights, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling several months ago which emasculated a key section of the Voting Rights Act.  And this time, workers’ rights, including the right to organize, are in the march’s platform.

“The Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act, leaving millions with inadequate protection from voting discrimination,” declared Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, in a pre-march press conference.  But he also listed other causes this year’s marchers are campaigning for:

  •   Comprehensive immigration reform “to bring millions out of the shadows.”

“When immigrants are afraid to report abuses in the workplace, then the rights of all are undermined,” Henderson said.

  •  Workers’ rights, including the right to organize, were first in the platform of the marchers, the National Action Network said.  It tied that issue to wage inequality.

“Workers’ rights have been under attack in states across this country,” the network, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, explained.  “Low-wage earners in certain industries have been banned from the right to unionize and collectively bargain for fair pay, benefits and other protections.

“Others who have been protected have had their rights attacked or taken away through the introduction and passage of bills that threaten workers’ protections,” the network added, referring to Radical Right legislation that stripped public workers of their collective bargaining rights.

  •  The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, to ban job discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.
  • Women’s rights issues, notably pay discrimination on the job.
  • Criminal justice issues, led by repeal of state “stand your ground” laws that let people shoot on sight if they feel threatened.
  • A living wage, especially for low-paid fast food and retail workers, who have staged 1-day strikes in major cities, including a nationwide strike planned for August 29.

“Our view is that only in coalition will we achieve these goals,” Henderson said of the amalgamation of unions, civil rights groups, women’s groups, Hispanic groups, LGBT groups and other organizations sponsoring and organizing this year’s march.

This year’s march, four days before the actual anniversary date, went first to the memorial, where Dr. King gave his famous “I have a dream speech,” and then to the recently dedicated memorial to the murdered civil rights leader, a few blocks away.  Other events were scheduled for the following four days, including an Aug. 28 march.

This year, participating unionists tied together the right to organize, workers’ rights, women’s rights and wage inequality, especially its impact upon minorities.

  •  “The battle for justice is just as important today as it was 50 years ago,” AFGE President J. David Cox said.  “We are honoring and continuing the efforts of Dr. King and those civil rights activists…commemorating Dr. King’s dream” and “furthering the work he has done with civil rights, workers’ rights, and women’s rights.”
  • “So much of what we sought to achieve 50 years ago is gravely threatened today,” the Communications Workers said.  “We will gather together not as a commemoration, but as a continuation and a call to action.  Fifty years ago, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom secured vital civil rights for millions, however many of the other goals championed that day have not been met.”

CWA cited high jobless rates and poverty rates among African-Americans and Hispanics, the low minimum wage — which would be $13 an hour now if it had been adjusted for inflation over the past 50 years — and still-segregated schools.

  •   “Since the (1963) march, I’ve been arrested during civil disobedience rallies, sat down in the middle of the street during a strike to block supply trucks and participated in peaceful protests against police brutality,” said SEIU 1199 retiree Monnie Callan, a participant then.

“The battles we’ve been fighting over the last five decades are so similar in nature.  We have a long way to achieve the 1963 march’s vision for a more equal and just society.  It’s time to develop a full-blown movement in this country that is going to do something about our unfair economy and about the continued racism that’s so prevalent in many of our governmental systems,” Callan declared.

  • The AFL-CIO said: “While there has been immense progress since the 1963 march, 50 years later voting rights are being challenged, immigrants are being denied their basic human rights, and workers and their unions are under attack.  Remember the core message from the March on Washington was that jobs and freedom go together.”  It decided earlier this year to “use the 50th anniversary…to recommit ourselves to extending and deepening freedom, equality and democracy for all in this country, and building a strong social and economic justice movement.”
  •  The A. Phillip Randolph Institute, one of the AFL-CIO’s two African-American constituency groups, hosted its national education conference after the march for  “all who are interested in civil rights, human rights and working rights of all Americans,” said its president, Clayola Brown.  Randolph, longtime president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters – the first African-American union – co-organized the 1963 march.

Other unions sending contingents and co-sponsoring the August 24 march included the Electrical Workers, the Machinists, the National Education Association, the National Nurses United, SEIU, the United Federation of Teachers and Unite Here.

“Let’s not lose the forest for the trees here,” Mee Moua of Asian-Americans Advancing Justice, told another telephone press conference.  “It is about unleashing people and bringing them to Washington to show the reasons Washington must work” to solve the economic divide, as well as civil rights and voting rights, she added.

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer