WASHINGTON, D.C. – As Hurricane Irene threatened to roil through the East Coast, activists and a Harvard sociologist gathered at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Friday to reflect on Martin Luther King’s legacy and its implications for the future of the labor movement.
The event was meant to be a companion to the unveiling of the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, though the unveiling—as well as the commemorative march—was postponed because of the impending storm.
“Natural disasters we cannot control, but it is the man-made disasters that we have the power to change if we so choose,” said AFL-CIO executive director Arlene Holt Baker.
Martin Luther King III opened by reminding the audience that the 1963 March on Washington was centered around “jobs and freedom,” since one is interconnected with the other.
Many panelists noted that the economic situation for American workers remained as bleak as ever, with the gap between the rich and poor reaching all-time highs.
Unemployment currently stands at 9 percent, twice the level it was in 1963.
“We live in a country less economically equal than in Dr. King’s time,” said Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president.
Throughout the morning’s first panel, statistics about the gloomy state of the American economy abounded: one of every five children in the United States is poor, and at least 17 million families are living in extreme poverty, defined as making less than $11,000 per year.
“It’s not a recession these folks are facing,” said moderator Bob Herbert, a former New York Times columnist. “It’s a full-blown recession.”
Even more distressing, said Herbert, is that the debate in Washington has shifted from job creation to austerity measures, a disturbing reminder of the outsized influence that the wealthy have on modern political discourse.
“We cannot begin to put the United States back on track until we begin to put our people back to work,” he said.
Kathleen Hoffman, a Cleveland-based teacher and union activist, talked about how the downturn has affected schools in Ohio—a state that, like Wisconsin, has recently been embroiled in a battle over collective bargaining rights. More than 700 teachers in Cleveland were laid off in the spring, she said, leaving other teachers to contend with class sizes of more than 50 children.
“This does not help our children,” she said.
Hoffman has seen an uptick in the number of children who are homeless, which has led some school districts to create community learning centers for children with parents who need to work.
Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs and Justice, noted that even well-educated workers once thought to be immune from economic downturns have seen a rise in unemployment.
“These are folks who have gone to school, they have educational backgrounds, and they can’t find jobs,” she said. “The way people are struggling is profound.”
Harvard University sociologist Bruce Western said that rising income inequality during the last 40 years has coincided with the decline of American unions.
“Now we find ourselves in a historically enormous recession, the largest since the Great Depression, and it coincides with a low point in the bargaining power of the American worker,” he said.
To make matters worse, politicians seem to be “utterly detached,” Western said, from the reality of the modern labor market.
“There’s an extraordinarily wealthy class of people who have lived experiences completely separate from the rest of American society,” he said.
Western said that he’d like to see federal job creation in the form of investment and infrastructure.
“The need is so pressing. We’ll reap large economic rewards from that down the road,” he said.
But many components of a job creation bill—such as tax credits, a payroll tax holiday, and an extension of unemployment benefits beyond 99 weeks—are likely to die in Congress, he said.
“The things we really need to a do are a long way from what seems politically feasible,” he said.
“We’re witnessing what some have called a return of the bad-old days,” said Maria-Elenas Salinas, an anchor at Noticiero Univision, during the day’s second panel. “This may be the worst times that we have seen for a generation.”
Among Hispanics, she said, unemployment stands at 11.5 percent, and hate crimes against Hispanics are on the rise, stemming largely from anxiety over immigration.
Isabel Castillo, a DREAM activist and herself an undocumented immigrant, said that the contributions that immigrants make to the American economy is often overlooked.
Undocumented immigrants have the potential to cut the deficit by $1.4 billion, she said.
“This is our home. We’re American. We just want to contribute and give back to our communities,” she said.
AFL-CIO young worker coordinator Kurston Cook said that the young unemployment rate is 18 percent, despite the fact that the current generation is the most educated—and “plugged-in” in American history.
Cook said that young people are currently trapped in a vicious cycle in which they’re robbed of the opportunity to gain work experience and, as a consequence, it’s more difficult for them to find steady employment.
“The American dream that so many people have realized is going to become an American fantasy because we’re not going to have the jobs that we need to provide for our families,” he said.
“Jobs and justice are connected; freedom and jobs are connected,” said veteran activist Mary Frances Berry. “If we believed in justice for all, then jobs would be a major priority.”