JACKSON, Miss. – Gathered here for the AFL-CIO’s Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance, over 200 union leaders and members heard Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson condemn George Bush’s most recent attack on affirmative action. The Bush administration’s “friend of the court brief,” filed in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, challenges the pro-diversity admissions policies of the University of Michigan.
Recalling that, “Just a few weeks ago millions heard [Mississippi Republican Senator] Trent Lott on BET-TV declare his support for affirmative action and social and economic justice,” Rep. Thompson announced, “Tomorrow I will ask Senator Lott to file a friend of the court brief in favor of affirmative action” in the University of Michigan case.
The annual AFL-CIO King Observance, held Jan. 16 through 20 to commemorate Dr. King’s civil rights legacy, reached out to the community and to joined with Mississippi workers in demonstrations at the State Capitol and at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
The rally in front of the Medical Center was in support of several employees fired unjustly and to protest racial discrimination at the hospital. Rally participants lined up along the street in front of the Medical Center chanting, “AFL-CIO says racism must go!” as drivers in passing traffic honked their horns in support.
On the final day of the four-day observance, supporters joined members of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees/CWA (MASE/CWA) on the steps of the State Capitol to demand adequate pay and the establishment of a Department of Labor for their state. State Rep. James Evans of Jackson said that Mississippi is the only state in the country without a Department of Labor, which is, he says, “needed to protect the rights and interests of workers.”
Brenda Scott, president of MASE/CWA Local 3570, pointed out the challenges faced by the 29,000 state employees in Mississippi, a “right to work” state. “The average salary for a state employee is $24,000, but 61 percent earn less than that,” Scott said. Scott, who led the organizing effort that has brought 3,100 members into Local 3570, said that before state workers had a union their pay was the lowest in the nation and now it is 44th.
Speakers at the Town Hall Meeting, which kicked off the Commemoration weekend, linked the crisis of today with King’s struggles.
Central Mississippi, the birthplace of civil rights heroes Fannie Lou Hamer and James Meredith, is “hallowed ground,” said State Representative Jim Evans. “This is where the Freedom Rides came.”
Bill Lucy, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, reminded the crowd that King talked about peace and the elimination of poverty as he fought for and organized the powerless. Lucy cautioned labor activists to focus on the problem at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and not to allow themselves to be diverted.
Harvey Johnson, first African-American mayor of Jackson, greeted the opening plenary, followed by Robert Shaffer, president of the Mississippi AFL-CIO, and AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson. Shaffer and Chavez-Thompson both related their early childhood of poverty and the hard work of picking cotton.
Chavez-Thompson went on to say, “We have a big job on our hands. We are up against a president who is against affirmative action, social security, quality education and Medicare. Lott was pushed out because he didn’t know how to keep his mouth shut, not because of his beliefs. Pickering [one of Bush’s latest judicial nominees] has the same beliefs and now he’s being pushed on us again.”
Noel Beasley, international vice president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, linked the civil rights and peace activist histories of state universities at Kent, Ohio, and Jackson, Mississippi, connecting the anti-Vietnam war movement to the civil rights movement and then relating it to what is going on presently. In 1970, Beasley said, “Few people knew that the police fired into the Jackson State dormitories killing two [African-American] students. The two movements were not united against a common enemy. It was Dr. King who was bringing people together, black and white, for the Poor People’s March and against the Vietnam War.”
Hollywood actor, director and activist Mario Van Peebles paid tribute to the struggles of organized labor noting, “While the civil rights movement enabled African Americans to ride anywhere on the bus, it was the Black labor movement that gave us the money to ride on the bus.”
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