- - Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Martin Luther King, whose birthday was celebrated by the country last week, has a number of enduring legacies to his credit. He was the foremost civil rights leader of his or perhaps any time. He was a leading apostle of nonviolence in the face of grave injustice and violence from both mobs and authorities. He campaigned for peace with other nations. He struggled to reduce poverty in this richest of lands. And he sought to have the United States fulfill the moral greatness of its promise.

On these themes, few argue with him today. In fact, many conservatives who were mum or hostile during his struggle for civil rights hail the notion of a society where people are judged on the content of their character and not on the color of their skin, even if they sometimes do so with the cynical aim of justifying opposition to affirmative action.

But what is too often forgotten these days is another element of King’s legacy - his battles to improve the rights, living standards and dignity of all those who work for a living.

He not only fought for those goals, he died for them as well, assassinated in Memphis at the age of 39 as he helped striking union sanitation workers.

Who speaks today for downtrodden workers who have two or three jobs yet fall further and further behind? For the tens of thousands of employees a year who are fired for trying to form a union at their workplace, hoping to improve their lot but instead learning the hard way that sometimes rights guaranteed on paper exist only on paper? For workers who find their jobs disappear when profitable companies leave to earn yet a little more profit in countries where repressed workers earn pennies on the hour? For the communities ripped apart when those companies shut their plants?

Robert F. Kennedy once spoke for those people. Hubert H. Humphrey once did. Who does today? And why did the Republican Party weed out from its ranks those who evinced compassion for workers struggling to make it?

The labor movement, which is far from perfect but has lifted millions of Americans into the middle class, does its best to fight for them, despite ferocious employer opposition and difficult economic trends. But who speaks for those Americans; who elevates their concerns into the national dialogue?

Our political debate is rife with discussion of job creators and capital gains and private equity. But who is talking about how our country’s fate is intertwined with the fate of millions of hardworking Americans who see no progress no matter how long their workday is?

Conservatives speak, often eloquently, about how the American free-enterprise system has produced more wealth than has ever been generated in history. They are right, but must the conversation end there? What are their ideas for dealing with the growing number of people who work but are falling behind? If markets are free and capital is mobile, why shouldn’t workers have the unfettered right to join freely together and have the organizations they form be respected, not demonized, for their roles in the system?

Those who dismiss the widening economic inequality in our society while giving lip service to King’s legacy might ask themselves: Is it really possible that he was so right, so prescient, about race relations and so much else but lacked all merit when he spoke of the plight of poor workers? What would he be saying and doing today? And what kind of a nation will we be in the future if our defining traits of economic mobility and a strong middle class continue to recede into history?

• Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.

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