By HENRY GARRIDO
Members of a DC 37 delegation were among the thousands of people who visited Memphis, Tenn., last month to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
We feel a personal connection to the tragedy on April 14, 1968, because the civil rights leader was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers represented by our national union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. King described the goals of the civil rights movement and labor movement as intertwined. He recognized that unions built our middle class.
“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress,” King said. “Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life.”
The commemoration led me to reflect on our struggle today as we face the anti-union U.S. Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME and a multi-million dollar effort by a right-wing web of think tanks and policy groups to destroy us.
Tracie Sharp, president of the State Policy Network, acknowledges that the goal of the right is to deliver a “mortal blow” to public-employee unions.
A member of the network, the Right to Work Legal Foundation, is a major backer of Janus v. AFSCME, which represents the high point of a four-decade right-wing campaign to wipe out unions.
In these difficult times, we expect the relentless attack on the labor movement to continue regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on Janus, which would cripple public-employee unions financially.
In response to the attack on unions in the courts and to prepare a fight against a possible effort to impose the anti-labor Wisconsin model in New York, we adopted “Leading the Way,” a long-term plan to build up grassroots activism in our union. Highlighting the value of unions is an important part of our reform effort.
Too many people either don’t know or forget that the labor movement was behind major federal legislation — including Social Security, the Voting Rights Act, Medicaid and Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act.
Those are achievements that the right wants whittle down as it pursues its agenda of small government.
So much is at stake here at home: the right of our union to represent members in contract negotiations; the power to make sure our workplaces are safe; the ability to protect our generous health-care coverage and rich benefits package (which includes the prescription drug benefit, tuition assistance, legal help, dental care, audiology checkups, including hearing aids, help with home purchases and the vision benefit).
Our benefits came from decades of struggle by DC 37 and other municipal unions, a struggle that created a pathway to the middle class, especially for minorities and women.
As members of a union, we have job security that is largely absent in the private sector. We enjoy greater retirement security than most workers in the country.
I urge everyone to become more active as we defend our jobs and benefits against the assault of right-wing interests.
Henry Garrido is the executive director of District Council 37, AFSCME, which represents 120,000 municipal workers in New York City. This column appeared in the May issue of Public Employee Press, the official publication of DC 37.