Stephen Gottlieb: The Dagger In The Heart of Labor

Aug 15, 2017

Last week I spoke about labor. Next week is the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington. I intended to connect the two. After hate intervened in Charlottesville, that’s even more urgent.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Progressive Movement was making great strides on behalf of American workers and farmers. Gradually, the political parties adopted parts of the Progressives platform and many of their proposals were eventually adopted. But in the South, white elites drove a stake through the heart of the Progressive Movement by dividing workers on race. It took the Great Depression of the 1930s to wake America up.

The March on Washington that many of us remember as Martin Luther King’s great triumph was actually called by a coalition of labor leaders. Labor understood that workers had to stand together or they would be trashed together. If you could underpay African-American workers you could underpay everyone. The AFL-CIO, clear about the ways our fates interrelate, was a major supporter of the Civil Rights Movement.

But some politicians used racial prejudice to drive a wedge into support for progress, to prevent government from providing benefits and services for all of us, and then take the “savings” as tax breaks for themselves. Far more whites land on the public safety net but politicians want us to believe it’s just African-Americans. Far fewer African-Americans than whites depend on public schools but politicians want us to think money spent on schools is wasted because “they” get it. In area after area, politicians convinced many of us to starve public services. They want whites to think we would never need what African-Americans would get. They tell us we don’t want to spend anything on “them.” We should be allies, but the politics of race turns us into competitors.

Last time, I described how states and the Supreme Court have been undermining labor’s political role even as it augments management’s. So-called free market “conservatives” don’t want to do anything for the public, for you, your kids and your parents. They tell us that the market solves all problems for the deserving and only the undeserving need help, even while sanctimonious business men poison and defraud us. The real culprits want the freedom to take advantage of us while piling on more tax breaks for themselves. Racial prejudice just makes it easier for them to hide their own misbehavior.

So I want to make three points. First, racial prejudices do the greatest harm when politicians exploit them. I applaud those who condemn the violence and the perpetrators specifically. White supremacists don’t just object to policies – they hate everyone different from them. And no, Black Lives Matter is not a racist organization – objection to racism isn’t racism.

Second, the Supreme Court handed us heavily armed racists massing and marching to intimidate the rest of us. That must stop. Guns have no place in politics or public debate. Worse, white supremacists here admire Hitler, and study his path to power. Hitler’s Brown Shirts terrorized Germany. These folks are terrorists.

Third, Trump has done permanent damage to American politics. His close ties to groups which hate a large portion of America because they think we have the wrong parents is outrageous and highlights the danger of those hate groups. Trump has shown a path to power that every decent American must reject.

I was in front of the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. Martin Luther King shared his glorious dream. I thrilled to his words. But the March on Washington which we remember for Dr. King’s words was called and organized by the labor leaders of America dreaming of unity for all the working men and women of America. It is still a dream. We have to make it come true.

Stephen E. Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School emeritus and author of Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.

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