|AFSCME Council 18|
ABQ Journal Publishes AFSCME Op-Ed by Secretary-Treasurer Saunders
Economic Justice Key Part of Dream
Thousands of New Mexicans will join their fellow citizens across America today in honoring Martin Luther King Jr., who still stands as our greatest symbol of progress, and whose courage transformed our nation. While New Mexico and the rest of the country claw out of the worst recession since the Great Depression, Dr. King’s legacy has the power to inspire a new generation to fight for justice and ensure New Mexico and the rest of the country thrive and grow.
On what would have been Dr. King’s 83rd birthday, his words continue to ring true for America and many here in New Mexico. During the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he spoke of Americans living “in a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
That same problem remains today. Middle- and lower-income Americans have been hit especially hard in the downturn, and thousand of working families, including many here in New Mexico, continue to lose their homes because of high unemployment rates.
As New Mexicans turn out for parades or events in Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Santa Fe, they will remember a leader who not only championed civil rights but also economic justice. Both were essential parts of his Dream for America. That is why he fought so strongly for the right of American workers to organize and bargain collectively. He was a longtime supporter of unions and understood the role of organized labor in creating the middle class. As he said in a 1961 speech to the delegates at the AFL-CIO Convention: “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs.”
AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, had an especially close bond with Dr. King. On three occasions in 1968 he traveled to Memphis to stand with the sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1733 – 1,300 men who went on strike to secure their right to collective bargaining. They were public employees earning poverty wages, working long days in backbreaking labor. When the workers went on strike they were risking everything. But the signs they carried, “I AM A MAN,” made it clear: Their action was about much more than wages. It was also about dignity.
Dr. King understood. “All labor has dignity,” he told the AFSCME members in Memphis. “You are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” Dr. King recognized that civil rights and workers’ rights are intertwined. If workers do not have a voice in the workplace or the right to stand up for themselves to negotiate at the bargaining table, then the voices of some people – those with wealth and power – matter more than others.
Dr. King would be gratified today that New Mexicans and their fellow citizens share his commitment to justice. Moreover, they are mobilizing in numbers that have been rarely seen since the 1960s. Throughout the country we see the beginnings of a social justice movement that will reinvigorate and revive Dr. King’s hope for a community where all Americans work together for the common good.
This movement has brought together working families, civil rights organizations, church groups, students, environmentalists, the LGBT community and others to counter the efforts of those who have tried to turn back the clock to a time when only the powerful had a voice and a future. As we commemorate Dr. King on his birthday, we need to remember the challenge he posed to all of us: to create a nation that provides every citizen with the opportunity to stand with dignity. We need to be involved in this struggle and to do everything in our power to revive the dream for which Dr. King gave his life.
Lee A. Saunders is the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, a labor union that represents 1.6 million workers across the United States, including 13,000 public employees and health care workers in New Mexico.
© American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO. All rights reserved.
Photographs and illustrations, as well as text, cannot be used without permission from AFSCME.