OXFORD - A group of workers, preachers and activists traveled from Mississippi to Detroit recently to proclaim what should be a core issue of 2014. "Labor rights are civil rights," Open Door Mennonite Church pastor Horace McMillon of Jackson told folks at the North American International Auto Show.
McMillon and other members of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan were at the auto show to make their case that the thousands of workers at Nissan's plant in Canton deserve an opportunity to have an intimidation-free election to determine whether to join the United Auto Workers.
However, the vision of "labor rights" as "civil rights" reaches far beyond the UAW, Nissan and Canton. For starters, look at the income gap between the rich and all the rest of us. The richest 10 percent of Americans control 80 percent of stock-market wealth. Average income for the middle 20 percent of Americans is up less than 5 percent over the past 20 years. For the richest 5 percent of Americans, income jumped 17 percent.
Mississippi and the nation are now struggling with rising prison costs—but why are so few of the bankers, auditors and Wall Street financiers who caused the 2008 Great Recession behind bars?
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress play politics with the unemployment benefits needed by 1.3 million jobless and fight a raise in the minimum wage. Republicans led the way in cutting food stamps for the poor by 7 percent. Mississippi and other southern states will lose billions of dollars because of their GOP leadership's refusal to expand Medicaid and accept the reality of Obamacare.
Yet, expect Republicans to stand solemnly alongside Democrats this year to commemorate Freedom Summer 1964—at the safe distance of 50 years—when young activists Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were murdered because they wanted civil rights and equality for all.
We should also hold another commemoration this year. The first major student protests of the 1960s began in 1964 with the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley, which civil rights activists in the South inspired. The Berkeley event opened the door to student protests across the country against racism, the Vietnam War and other betrayals of the nation's ideals.
A new generation of protesters is already in the streets today, God bless 'em.
The "Moral Monday" protests against the right-wing agenda of GOP leaders in North Carolina have led to 900-plus arrests, but now they are spreading across the South, the nation's most repressive region. Legislators in Georgia and South Carolina as well as North Carolina opened their sessions this month with protesters outside state Capitol walls demanding that the needs of workers and the poor be addressed, not just those of the fat cats and lobbyists who finance junkets and political campaigns.
Across the country, Walmart and fast-food workers are taking a stand to demand a living wage from employers who've grown rich off their labors. The Walton family is worth an estimated $144 billion, yet its workers can't afford the company health plan. Taxpayers fork up $7 billion a year to subsidize the low-pay, low-benefits fast-food industry through food stamps, Medicaid and other government programs.
Blame falls on Democrats as well as Republicans. President Obama is leading the cause for the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership, another NAFTA-like agreement that will drain jobs and lower standards for U.S. workers while further enriching that top 10 percent who own 80 percent of Wall Street wealth. A recent New York Times investigation revealed that the U.S. spends $1.5 billion a year to buy clothing from factories in Asia, the same sweatshops built after the collapse of the textile industry in the U.S. South.
In this election year, expect a lot of talk about the "middle class." That's a term meant to delude, disarm and ultimately deceive. Working-class Americans—and that's most of us, whether our shirt collars are blue or white—can truly commemorate the martyrs and protesters of 1964 by proclaiming with those preachers, workers and activists in Detroit that "labor rights are civil rights." This is the year to demand that state and national leaders finally begin representing working people and the ideals that founded this nation.
Joe Atkins is a veteran journalist, columnist and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. His blog is laborsouth.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at [email protected].