American Amnesia

When Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in 1968, he was helping 1,300 sanitation workers in Memphis win union recognition. 

Like much of America at the time, Memphis didn’t recognize the humanity let alone the civil or labor rights of African-Americans, but at the time, no Memphis public worker black or white had the protection and benefit of collective bargaining – neither police nor firefighters, not the clerks or engineers.  Since then, millions of public employees across America have fought for and won union representation, and through their unions, have won higher wages and better benefits, and a better life, expanding the American middle-class. But in Memphis at the time, African-American sanitation workers were the vanguard. 

In this century, public employees have faced two major threats.  They’ve had to fight off attacks by the billionaire, anti-union, anti-government Koch family.  The Kochs (“coke”)  were the major force behind the Janus Supreme Court decision which allows anti-union public workers to free-ride, claiming many of the benefits unions win without paying dues to the locals that negotiated the benefits. 

But the even greater threat to public employees has been collective amnesia.  Americans have forgotten how America became the greatest nation on earth.

In much of the 1800s, the United States was developing very unevenly.  By century’s end, there were a few great fortunes and millions of working poor.  The 20th Century was a different story.  The massive mobilization of the nation’s resources to fight the depression and then the Nazis, impressed Americans with the power of democratic government to make life better.  Between that mobilization and the smart investments made by government for the next 35 years after the war, the US stood head and shoulders above the rest of the planet for the rest of the century.

Government was the catalyst. From public health programs, like the national anti-polio vaccine program, to the Works Progress Administration and other federal programs that employed out of work citizens to nation-wide electrification programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority, to massive water projects that made arid California land the most productive in the world, government programs – and thousands of government workers – brought health-protection, electricity and affordable food to tens of millions of Americans.

Later through the federally initiated interstate highway, NASA, our space-based communication satellites, the internet and the Global Positioning System, government made us look up and taught us to look forward to what was next. 

It was personal too.  Government provided what every family needs: clean water, sanitary sewers, regular trash pick-up, and teaching our kids to read in public school systems. At every level – local, county, regional, state and federal – government had a big role in making America great.  And government and public employees helped us find hope, confidence and pride in our nation.

BUT, on its own, government wasn’t enough.  Government made the middle class possible, but it was unions that assured the growth and health of the middle-class.  It was unions that demanded the creation of the National Labor Relations Act to force employers to bargain in good faith.  It was unions that called for a minimum wage, a reasonable limit to daily and weekly work hours, for health and safety laws and an end to child labor.  It was unions that pushed for unemployment insurance.  And it was public-sector unions that ensured that workers who administered these laws and regulations, and who delivered these services were rewarded with a better standard of living, too.

From the mid-1940s through the 70s, when union membership was highest, the US was unrivaled in the world on virtually every economic measure.  Then the largest fortunes were a bit less great but the smallest pockets were a bit less empty.  Now after 40 years of attacking unions, America remains the greatest wealth generator in the world, but like the 1890s, the riches accrue to only a few.  Meanwhile the rest of the country struggles.

What happened? 

From 1940 to the late 70s, most Republicans and Democrats agreed that a powerful and efficient government was necessary to stimulate and guide our economy.  And they came to agree to offer vital services like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans’ benefits, job training, food support, research and development, and un-biased data collection.  They also agreed that unions had a place at the table.  While they often disagreed on the pace and extent of reforms, they agreed that Americans should have enforceable rights on the street and at work, and equal access to the voting booth

After 1980, this began to change.  There were concerted efforts to delude Americans into believing that it was government that was the source of our problems, rather than the un-checked power of large private corporations and the erosion of our hard-won rights to bargain together and to vote.

When Dr. King got to Memphis, he saw brutalized workers utterly without power.  The sanitation workers had no gloves, no boots, no rain gear, no lockers, no men’s rooms or showers, and only 15 minutes for lunch.  They worked with old, dangerous equipment.  Worse, they worked 10 to 12 hours a day but got paid pennies per hour for only eight.  Even worse, if their bosses were so inclined, workers might not get paid on their designated paydays.  If they complained, they could expect to be fired.  The plantation had come to Memphis.

While it’s always been worse for workers of color, white workers also experienced a version of this exploitation during much of the 1800s and the early part of the 1900s.  What’s shocking but perhaps not surprising is our inability to recognize our own suffering in the faces of people who don’t look like us.  Perhaps it’s because we were convinced “they” aren’t worthy of our care, so we don’t even look.

Make no mistake, this still goes on.  “Divide and conquer” is as old as the oldest military manual.  That advice lives today in business strategy classes because it still works.  Union busters survive on this strategy.

Currently, with social media supplying the greatest number of communication tools in history, there are limitless ways to convince people from the ranks of the poor to the upper-middle class that “those” people don’t belong, are not to be trusted, and must be feared.

On many occasions Dr. King mentioned that poor white workers were subject to poor pay and horrible conditions too.  In Memphis he emphasized that unions lift everyone regardless of color.  Yet, he understood the difficulty of organizing unions.  He understood the intransigence of the white power structure to accept unions let alone to accept one led and populated by blacks.  But he also understood ordinary people’s vulnerability to messages, rumors and whispers of fear about one another.

"We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish like fools."
Martin Luther King, Jr., March 1964

In January we celebrate the birth of this brave and wise man, who saw what so many of us failed and still fail to see.  Let us remember his words, honor his example, and be vigilant in challenging American amnesia.

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