The Supreme Court Should Honor Dr. King's Legacy On Labor Rights

The case of Janus v. AFSCME challenges an American ideal that goes far beyond the right of unions to collect fees.
Union members cheer during a AFSCME rally at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles on June 20, 2012.
Union members cheer during a AFSCME rally at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles on June 20, 2012.
Jonathan Alcorn / Reuters

In the early days of April 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to join in a protest with 1,300 city sanitation workers who had gone on strike after two of their colleagues were killed on the job.

Their demands were, by any reasonable standards, modest: a safe workplace, fair wages, and to be treated with dignity and respect.

Dr. King would not have much time to participate in the demonstrations. On April 4, 1968, he was killed by an assassin’s bullet at his Memphis motel. But Coretta Scott King recognized how important the sanitation workers’ cause was to her late husband and led a march for the workers only four days after his death. And just two weeks later, the sanitation workers’ union, AFSCME Local 1733, reached an agreement with the city for safer working conditions and higher wages.

Now, almost 50 years later, the Supreme Court will hear a case that could fundamentally turn back the clock on the movement for civil rights, labor rights and economic justice in America.

This case ― Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31 ― has the potential to undo the gains that generations of Americans have fought for. The justices will hear oral arguments on Monday.

The case hinges on what are deceptively known as “right to work” laws, which prohibit unionized workplaces from automatically collecting fees from individual employees for the purpose of negotiating contracts and settling grievances. By cutting off the automatic collection of fees, these laws effectively starve unions of the resources they need to protect and fight for livable wages and safe workplaces for all employees, regardless of whether they participate in the union.

These troubling practices aren’t anything new. After all, efforts to impose these laws originated in the Jim Crow era, when they were used to prevent black workers from organizing with unions, particularly in the South. For decades, powerful interests have tried to pass laws that weaken employee protections and dilute the political and economic power of workers of all races.

And Janus v. AFSCME is among the biggest threats to American workers in generations.

At a time when workers are increasingly getting the short end of the stick, Janus v. AFSCME challenges an American ideal that extends well beyond the rights of unions to collect fees. It is a continuation of the outright attack on working men and women that so many conservative governors and legislators have waged for decades with the purpose of advancing corporate interests.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is surrounded by leaders of the striking sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is surrounded by leaders of the striking sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968.
Bettmann via Getty Images

Today, despite the fact that corporate profits are at their highest level in at least 85 years, employee compensation sits at one of the lowest levels it’s seen in over six decades. Nearly half of American workers make less than $15 an hour, and more than 41 million American workers — including about 20 million full-time workers — must rely on public assistance like food stamps or Medicaid just to get by.

As we seek to advance the condition of every American worker, we must also face the fact that these economic trends are particularly damaging to communities of color. The black-white wage gap is larger today than it was in 1979, and the poverty rate among black Americans is more than double the poverty rate among white Americans.

Instead of doing something ― anything ― to reverse these trends, Janus v. AFSCME represents a further assault on economic justice and on the rights of workers to earn a living wage, to work free from harm and to participate fully in the American dream.

The fact is that unions don’t just help the workers they represent ― although they do help those workers. According to the most recent data from the Department of Labor, unionized employees make on average 20 percent more than non-unionized workers. But unions also make our economy stronger, they empower American workers and they strengthen the middle class.

Throughout our history, generations of Americans ― from Frederick Douglass to Samuel Gompers, Dolores Huerta and Dr. King ― have gone up against entrenched interests to protect and activate the power of American workers, recognizing that a strong, fair economy is built on the strength of its workers.

The issue before the Supreme Court this week is fundamental. It’s about whether to uphold or reject this legacy. It’s about whether the nation’s highest court agrees that workers of all races, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds should have the ability to join together to fight for better wages and working conditions for themselves and for all Americans.

Sen. Cory Booker is the junior United States senator from New Jersey.

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