"Madison is just the beginning!" AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka told a union rally in Annapolis, Md., recently. "Like that old song goes, 'You ain't seen n-n-n-n-nothing yet!'"
Fresh from defeat in Wisconsin, union leaders are planning a new campaign not just to head off future challenges to their collective-bargaining powers but also to make the case that organized labor's benefits and prerogatives -- wages, health care and pensions that are more generous than those of comparable workers in the private sector -- are the moral equivalent of rights won by black Americans during the civil-rights movement.
To make the point, the AFL-CIO is planning a series of nationwide events on April 4, the 43rd anniversary of the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated after speaking in Memphis, Tenn., on behalf of striking black garbage collectors. The message: King's cause and that of angry schoolteachers in Madison are one.
"April 4 (is) the day on which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life for the cause of public collective bargaining," Trumka said in another recent speech, this one in Washington. And on the AFL-CIO blog, there is this notice: "Join us to make April 4, 2011, a day to stand in solidarity with working people in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and dozens of other states where well-funded, right-wing corporate politicians are trying to take away the rights Dr. King gave his life for."
Union officials are not planning a traditional mega-rally in Washington. Rather, they're encouraging locals across the country to stage shows of force in support of Wisconsin unions and the Democratic lawmakers who fled the state in a failed effort to stop Republican Gov. Scott Walker's budget plan. Throughout, the AFL-CIO is asking local leaders to tie the Wisconsin issue to the King assassination and civil rights.
"A lot of people forget that what (King) was doing in Memphis was fighting for sanitation workers there," says Josh Goldstein, an AFL-CIO spokesman. "It's important for people to make the connection. Martin Luther King was so important to the labor movement. Workers' rights and civil rights go hand in hand. It's a time to remind people what he was fighting for."
The AFL-CIO is advising member unions to come up with activities to stress ties between big labor and the civil-rights movement. AFL-CIO planners suggest that local labor leaders team up with churches to make workers' rights a theme at worship services. Union bosses also advise asking churches "to consider organizing candlelight vigils, which could include the reading of Dr. King's 'I've Been to the Mountaintop' speech," which King delivered the night before he was killed.
But was King fighting for the things that Trumka and his union forces are fighting for today? Is, say, the "right" for well-paid, unionized public employees to enjoy a health plan that includes coverage for Viagra -- a cause for which Milwaukee teachers waged a protracted court battle -- the equivalent of King's work in Memphis, much less his efforts for the right to vote and access to public accommodations?
"It is delusion, bordering on abomination, to try to equate what Martin Luther King was doing in Memphis to public workers getting Cadillac benefits for which they contribute very little, or nothing, at taxpayers' expense," says Peter Kirsanow, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights who has also served on the National Labor Relations Board. "The sanitation workers in Memphis were receiving wages that were so significantly below that which are enjoyed by middle-class teachers in Madison that to try to draw that comparison is offensive. Truly offensive."
Whatever events take place on April 4, look for the effort to have the enthusiastic support of the Obama administration. "Union rights are no different than civil rights," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis told officials of the Communications Workers of America during a Wisconsin strategy conference call two weeks ago. "It's a part of our history, it's a part of our culture, it's a part of what has made this country so great."
Will it work? After all the demonstrations and all the speeches, will the public watch protests by angry, nearly all-white, middle-class school teachers with excellent health and retirement plans and think of Martin Luther King? Trumka's AFL-CIO and the big unions are very rich and very powerful. They have the ability to get their message out. But their April 4 strategy might be too ambitious even for them.