The following address by Will Jones was delivered to a rally in Madison, WI on the 43rd Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Assassination. Jones is Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin Madison.
Some have suggested that history professors should not be speaking out about what is going on here in Wisconsin and across our land, but I have been studying public employee unions for five years and I know what they have done to improve our society. So I will not be silent as people try to take that away from us, by destroying the unions that have stood up not just for public employees but for the public services that we all rely upon every day.
When Martin Luther King went to Memphis in 1968, he hoped to build a new movement. He argued that the goals of that movement would be more expansive and more difficult to achieve than the civil rights movement that he led in the previous decade.
In addition to fighting for working people, public employee unions defended the public services that we all rely upon. They resisted cuts to our public schools, our health care system, our transportation and our public safety.
It was an interracial movement of poor and working-class people. It aimed to ensure that all Americans had access to good jobs, a safe and healthy place to live, high quality education and affordable health care.
That movement was weakened by King’s assassination 43 years ago today, but no institution has carried on his vision, kept that movement alive, more than public employee unions.
AFSCME, which was founded right here in Madison, Wisconsin, helped win that strike in Memphis. That set the stage for the rapid growth of the union in the 1970s; not just among garbage workers but maids, janitors, food service workers and laundry workers. They won decent wages and benefits and gave dignity to those jobs. The benefits were not just economic. They won workplace health and safety regulations, protection from discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation, limits on workload and grievance and seniority procedures.
AFSCME worked with other public employee unions, including the National Education Association, Police and Firefighters Associations, the Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, and my own union, the American Federation of Teachers. But those unions did not just fight for their own members. They became critical political voices for working people, particularly with the decline of unions in the private sector. In many cities, public employee unions were the only organized advocates for African Americans and other people of color.
And in addition to fighting for working people, public employee unions defended the public services that we all rely upon. They resisted cuts to our public schools, our health care system, our transportation and our public safety. They have been on the front lines of the struggle to realize Martin Luther King’s vision of a society where all citizens lead healthy, peaceful and productive lives, where all people can live in comfort and in dignity.
And now those unions are under attack, and it’s not hard to see the broader issues at stake. The same people who want to destroy public employee unions want to destroy our public schools, defund our health care system, and deprive all workers of decent wages and benefits.
And it is not just those gains that are under attack. While we were focused on defending our collective bargaining rights, the legislature passed a bill making it more difficult to vote. That was a direct attack on the victories of the civil rights movement. The legislature is currently debating cuts to transportation and education that will reinforce racial segregation in Milwaukee, which is already the most racially segregated city in the United States.
So it is not just the future of public employee unions that is at stake here in Wisconsin. It is a struggle over the legacy of Martin Luther King’s dream. Too often we restrict that dream to a simplistic goal of racial equality, but King himself described his vision in far broader terms. As he stated in 1961, before a group of union leaders in Washington, D.C., his dream was the “American Dream.” It was “a dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.”
That was King’s dream, and it is that dream – the American Dream-that is under attack here in Wisconsin and across the United States. And it is that dream that we are defending right here in Madison today.