Martin Luther King Day events promote workers’ struggles

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who would have been 84 this month, was assassinated in 1968 at the age of 39. He had been in Memphis, Tenn., to support striking sanitation workers. So it is particularly fitting that many of this year’s celebrations of King’s legacy were solidarity demonstrations with workers fighting for economic justice and against repression. The following are some highlights from selected cities.

In Atlanta, hundreds of Dekalb County sanitation workers fighting to form a union with Teamsters Local 728 marched in the MLK Day parade. They were joined by Alvin Turner and Baxter Leach, retired Memphis sanitation workers who marched with Dr. King during their strike just days before he was assassinated.

The Dekalb workers, who have gone without a raise in four years, want their union recognized by county commissioners. They are fighting for better pay and working conditions, the same things Turner and Leach fought for more than 40 years ago. “We are still fighting for justice. … It just fills my heart to see how they carry on Martin Luther King’s dream,” Leach told the crowd.

Since 2004 the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War & Injustice in Detroit has sought to reclaim the peace and social justice legacy of the martyred civil rights leader by rallying around the slogan “Money for Our Cities, Not for War.” The slogan is totally relevant in 2013 with Michigan’s recent imposition of “right-to-work” laws and the appointment of emergency management and financial stability agreements.

One highlight of this year’s event, organized by a broad Detroit MLK Committee, was the keynote speech by Rev. C. D. Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Dr. King and his colleagues founded in 1957. Witherspoon discussed the police terrorism plaguing his community and pledged solidarity with similar struggles in Detroit.

Another high point was a solidarity statement delivered by injured former Colombian autoworker Jorge Parra, who has been on a hunger strike for over two months demanding justice for injured employees that General Motors fired in Colombia.

Rally participants also marched through downtown Detroit chanting pro-labor and community slogans. The demonstration passed the International Auto Show where protesters denounced the right-to-work legislation. (See separate article for more about the Detroit rally and march.)

Solidarity with Walmart workers

MLK Day was celebrated in Baltimore on Jan. 19 with a rally outside Walmart in support of low-wage workers struggling to win better conditions and pay. The demonstration was organized by the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Taking part were representatives of Our Walmart, Occupy Wall Street, high school and college students from Safe and Sound, and several unions, including the American Federation of Government Employees, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Food and Commerical Workers union, and postal workers fighting to stop post office closings.

Eleven demonstrators were able to get inside the store where they distributed fliers and held a speak-out until they were pushed out. Two young Walmart workers delivered a moving message inside the store and spoke at the rally outside.

Thousands of city workers demonstrated in Philadelphia on Jan. 19 on Independence Mall where they called on Mayor Michael Nutter to negotiate with public employee unions that have gone without new contracts for four years. Stagnant wages have frustrated workers who have had to pay higher health care costs. The city is currently refusing to honor a contract awarded to the firefighters union through arbitration.

National labor leaders, including American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and AFSCME President Lee Saunders were on hand to support union workers from AFSCME DC 33 and DC 47 and Local 22 of the firefighters union.

Members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers also participated, expressing their anger over the city’s threat to close 37 schools. On Jan. 21, parents and teachers staged a MLK Day rally outside of Gompers Elementary School in West Philadelphia, one of the schools slated for closure.

Also on Jan. 21, the Build People’s Power Movement held a speak-out for jobs, education and justice at a busy subway stop in West Philadelphia. BPP organizer Patrice Armstead facilitated the event, which included Kaycee Osadolor, from Free the Streets, who spoke about police brutality. Retired postal worker Joe Piette stated that Dr. King, who marched with auto workers in Detroit and sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., would have supported today’s struggle to stop the privatization of the post office, which will hit communities of color particularly hard.

At the Durham, N.C., MLK Day rally, state NAACP Vice President Curtis Gatewood called for a return to the streets. Gatewood told the hundreds gathered: “It is great to have King Day programs, but it is time for us to get out of the comfort zone and get back into the streets and join the fight for justice.” (Durham News, Jan. 21)

Banners and speakers raised anti-police brutality struggles, including that of Stephanie Nickerson beaten by police on Oct. 28. Others called for the release of Carlos Riley Jr., a Black youth accused of shooting a police officer on Dec. 18.

Durham city worker Max Davis spoke out against the lack of union protection for public workers in the South. “[In] the last campaign [King] was working on, he died for garbage workers,” Davis said. “One of our main issues I would like to see before I retire is collective bargaining for public service workers.”

By state law North Carolina workers are denied collective bargaining rights. But after a hard-fought struggle, on Jan. 15, Charlotte city workers won the right to have union dues deducted from their paychecks.

Stop the racist death penalty, end mass incarceration

In Woodstock, N.Y., the 23nd Annual Birthday Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for an end to mass incarceration. Noting that Dr. King dedicated his life to the struggle against Jim Crow legislation, event organizers called for a campaign to educate and mobilize people against mass incarceration of African-American young men known as the “New Jim Crow.”

Pam Africa, leader of International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu Jamal, spoke to an overflow, standing-room-only crowd. The event also featured speakers from the Kingston/Poughkeepsie area End the New Jim Crow Action Network.

In Houston, members of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement organized a contingent in the MLK march to get out word that the state’s 500th execution will happen in just a few months — a milestone that no other state will exceed. On Jan. 29, Kimberly McCarthy, an African-American woman, will be the fourth woman put to death in Texas, the killing capital of the U.S.

Contributing to this article were Abayomi Azikiwe, Sharon Black, Rene Imperato, Dianne Mathiowetz, Gloria Rubac and Dante Strobino.