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"Commentary on the Kahlenberg-Marvit Article: Leo W. Gerard"

January/February 2013 issue of Poverty & Race

International President, United Steelworkers,

Unions put power in the hands of working people, just as the vote put power in the hands of black people. Immediately after President Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves, former slave-holders—that is, the wealthy of the Confederacy—conspired to prevent black people from exercising their franchise, to prevent them from wielding the power of the vote to improve their lives. Immediately after the Wagner Act was passed in 1935, right-wing politicians, at the behest of robber barons, conspired to prevent working people from exercising the right to organize enshrined in the law, a right that enabled working people to improve their lives.

Over the years, those intent on denying black people their human rights devised numerous ways to obstruct them from voting, including poll taxes, literacy tests and terrorization by the KKK. They lynched black people to repress an entire race. They lynched union organizers to repress a powerful idea. The great Rev. Martin Luther King embraced unionization as a method for all working people to ensure that they received a just portion of the profits derived from the fruit of their labor. On the day he died, he had supported striking Memphis sanitation workers who carried signs that said, “I AM A MAN.”

Inherent in manhood—in personhood—is self-determination. For self-determination, a person must have the ability to exercise the right to vote. And for self-determination, people must have the ability to support themselves and their families. In recent years, right-wingers have once again openly and actively sought to deny the vote to whole categories of people, including the poor and black people, by demanding specific photo identification at polling places. And they’ve passed union suppression laws in state after state.

In 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed a second Bill of Rights, what he called an Economic Bill of Rights. He said: “We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.” Unfortunately, this great proposal was one he did not live to achieve. Now, collective bargaining is among the only methods working people can use to assure their economic rights. Like voting rights, the right to unionize should be strengthened, not weakened.

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