The eldest son of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said Monday if his father had not been killed 43 years ago, the civil rights icon would be fighting alongside the workers rallying to protect collective bargaining rights.
Martin Luther King III said he will join marchers across the country on the anniversary of his father's assassination, in support of workers' rights. At the time of his death, King was in Memphis, Tenn., supporting a strike of black municipal sanitation workers. His son said the fight was for dignity and democracy, and he compares that struggle to the battle over collective bargaining rights in states including Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio.
"If he were with us, he would be very concerned that some Americans have chosen to focus on dismantling workers' rights," King III said. "Dad was killed in that context. He would want us to be engaged in that activity today."
Labor unions want to frame the debate as a civil rights issue, which could draw sympathy to public workers being blamed for busting state budgets with generous pensions. Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, was also in Atlanta for the "We Are One" campaign, which she said also included teach-ins and vigils in dozens of cities nationwide. Standing near the spot where King and his widow, Coretta Scott King, are buried, Holt Baker said the two movements are linked.
"Dr. King realized and said so often that a path to a just economy, to the middle class, was through labor unions," she said. "Economic justice was the ultimate fulfillment of his dream."
The planned rallies are part of a coordinated strategy by labor leaders to ride the momentum of pro-union demonstrations and national polls showing most Americans support collective bargaining rights as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and other GOP leaders in states fight to reduce or strip those benefits.
Walker has argued that collective bargaining is a budget issue. On Friday, he signed into law a bill the strips nearly all collective bargaining benefits from most public workers, arguing the move will give local governments flexibility in making budget cuts needed to close the state's $3.6 billion deficit.
At the rally in Cleveland, about 300 union supporters denounced Ohio Gov. John Kasich and workers vowed to block the bill Kasich signed last week that bans public worker strikes, eliminates binding arbitration and restricts bargaining for 350,000 public employees. U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Ohio, said Republicans are trying to silence workers at the bargaining table.