Continuing Dr. King’s work: Advocating for Immigrant and Worker Rights

Posted: January 16, 2012 in Contemporary Politics, Education, Immigration, Organized Labor

This post is the introduction to a paper I delivered as part of a series of talks culminating an immersion trip to Italy sponsored by the USD Francis Harpst  Center for Catholic Thought & Culture.  Today, in honor of the legacy of the work that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr did during his lifetime, I wanted to share some of my thoughts and why I believe we all must commit ourselves to continuing the work of Dr. King.

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“ We are not only living in a time of cataclysmic change; we live in an era in which human rights is the central world issue”  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963, 94)

    On October 23, 1963, amidst a year-long campaign advocating for President John F. Kennedy to issue a second “Emancipation Proclamation” that enforced civil rights and voting rights via executive order (ibid 87), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered an address to the members of District 65 Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to commemorate their 30th anniversary. His speech highlighted the idea that the disempowered could fight economic and political power structures to achieve victory by engaging in a social movement so powerful that it enabled workers to “wrest some tokens of dignity from unwilling hands” (1963, 90).   The struggle for dignity, according to King, was an experience shared by unionists and African Americans and served as common ground that made the groups, allies in a broader struggle that linked labor rights to economic justice.  King acknowledged however, that numerous obstacles and barriers including racism within unions and society at large impeded social change. While unions were winning battles,  King warned that  even as those in power made concessions to unions, they would ‘give to us with one hand and snatch back with the other, every gain we make” (ibid). Achieving social justice meant acknowledging, “that mankind through the ages has been in a ceaseless struggle to give dignity and meaning to human life” (ibid).   Dr. King’s words and social analysis are equally important today as they were almost fifty years ago. The struggle for economic and racial justice remains at the forefront of political mobilization and action. Workers, particularly in the public sector, find themselves fighting their state governments for benefits, collective bargaining rights, and retirement. The civil sector, in an era of globalization, was once considered a safe haven for middle class jobs and lifestyles, now find their livelihoods in jeopardy.  Recent legislation enacted in Wisconsin and Ohio, and proposed changes in twenty-four other states, most notably Indiana, directly attack the collective bargaining rights of unionized public employees.  Additionally, there is anti-immigration legislation similar to Arizona’s SB1070, proposed in 24 states. These initiatives bring to the forefront the struggles facing both immigrant and non-immigrant workers across the country.  Funded and backed by a broad array of socially conservative politicians and think tanks, as well as corporate libertarians like the Koch brothers[1], these new initiatives attack the stability of government sector jobs and stealthily disguise moves toward privatization in the public sector including the prison, medical, and finance systems that need lower wages and non-union shops for corporations to profit.[2]The fight for economic justice and the recognition of the contributions of all workers regardless of race, gender, and citizenship is needed just as much now as it was when Dr. King addressed District 65.  More insidious, however, is the vitriolic public discourse that fails to disguise the hate, racism, xenophobia and anger directed at immigrants and the working class –both of who are integral to sustaining the US economy.  For example, Sheriff Joseph Arpaio announced that Maricopa county plans to launch ‘Operation Desert Sky.’ a program “staffed by citizen vigilantes and deputies from human smuggling and drug enforcement units” that will deploy 30 pilots into the air with M-16’s to hunt border crossers.   While these examples are extreme, they push us to question the motives behind, and the public response to these initiatives. Why do individuals feel threatened by workers receiving living wage, pensions, and benefits? Why are people threatened by providing immigrants access to decent, albeit low paying, jobs? Why do politicians and members of the citizenry at large feel compelled to turn to misinformation, lies, or worse –violence as a “solution” to perceived immigration or worker problems?  These attacks on worker and immigrant rights confront us with difficult dilemmas about the divisive way in which politics intersect with identity, difference, and privilege.  As educators focusing on social justice and equality, we must grapple with the complex reality that the challenges and changes we want our students to see depends on a reconfiguration of the social, ethical, and moral infrastructure that frames how work, organized labor, and immigration are viewed by students and society. _______ In the full version of this paper written in conjunction with a Catholic Social Teaching (CST) Immersion seminar sponsored by the Francis Harpst Center for CatholicThought and Culture, I discuss the potential for utilizing the CST principles of Dignity of Work and the Preferential Option for the Poor and sociological research on  stratification and privilege to help teach the importance of advocating for workers and immigrants in the modern era.


[1] Hamburger, Hennessey, and Banerjee. (2011). “Koch Brothers Now at the Heart of GOP Power” in February 6, 2011 Los Angeles Times.
[2] Handley, J. (2011).  “Divesting from Private Prisons” in July 16, 2011 , In These Times. http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/11623/divesting_from_private_prisons
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Comments
  1. Great address, Belinda!

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