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Unions to Use Anniversary of King Death to Start Labor, Rights Campaign in South

February 16, 1988|HENRY WEINSTEIN | Times Labor Writer

BAL HARBOUR, Fla. — A coalition of union leaders announced here Monday that they would hold a 25-day "pilgrimage" through the South in April, starting on the 20th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, in an attempt to raise the nation's consciousness about the problems workers are facing today and to demonstrate "the unity of purpose between the labor movement and the civil rights movement."

King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., where he had gone to help 1,500 striking sanitation workers who were attempting to persuade the city of Memphis to recognize their union and negotiate their first contract. After King's murder, the city agreed to recognize the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees as the employees' bargaining agent, and the union now represents 6,800 Memphis city workers.

The pilgrimage, co-sponsored by a coalition of unions and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization that King headed, will start in Memphis, move through Mississippi and Alabama and conclude in Atlanta on April 30.

Series of Rallies

There will be a series of marches and rallies throughout the period, focusing both on specific labor struggles and civil rights issues. Among the events planned are rallies on behalf of lawn mower makers in Tupelo, Miss., shipyard workers in southern Mississippi, locked-out paper workers in Mobile, Ala., hospital employees in Birmingham, Ala., and janitors and airline workers in Atlanta.

Along the way, there will also be events aimed at spurring voter registration, particularly among the poor.

Howard Samuel, president of the AFL-CIO's industrial union department, announced the pilgrimage at a news conference on the first day of the AFL-CIO's annual mid-winter executive council meeting here. He said the April events would be the next phase of a multiunion Jobs With Justice Campaign that was started last summer to "fight the erosion of workers' rights" around the country.

Samuel said these rights include the right to a decent standard of living, rather than wage cuts and the elimination of jobs with decent wages; the right to job security, rather than growing insecurity in an economy that sees 2 million jobs permanently lost to plant closures every year, and the right to organize a union and bargain collectively "in what is increasingly likely to be a small piece of a multinational conglomerate corporation manipulated in a complex financial gain of corporate takeovers."

Spirit of Solidarity Cited

"The Jobs With Justice movement is bringing a new hope, a new spirit of solidarity in these very hard times," said Morton Bahr, president of the Communications Workers of America. He said the campaign had already helped to restore the positions of hundreds of hospital workers threatened with job loss in Buffalo, N.Y., and has played a key role in helping cafeteria workers in East Texas obtain their first collective bargaining agreement at a college there.

Bahr said the campaign was also a vehicle "to inject workers' rights issues" into the presidential campaign and noted that most of the Democratic candidates had come to Jobs With Justice events in recent months.

William Lucy, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who played a key role in the 1968 Memphis strike, said it was particularly appropriate to link the commemoration of King's death with the Jobs With Justice campaign. "Dr. King had a very strong relationship with the trade union movement," Lucy said. "He viewed it as a key part of the civil rights struggle. We're going to try to rekindle the spirit of 20 years ago."

In addition to the Communications Workers and the governmental employees, major unions among the 20 involved in the pilgrimage include the Service Employees International, the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers.

Wants Action on Trade Gap

In other developments here Monday, the 14.1-million-member labor federation's executive council adopted resolutions reiterating its support for an increase in the minimum wage, passage of legislation that would help reduce the nation's $171-billion trade deficit and for measures to strengthen the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-Tex.) addressed the council and afterward told reporters that he expected positive action on a trade bill by the end of March and on the minimum wage later in the year.

This was to have been the first executive council meeting attended by Jackie Presser, president of the Teamsters Union, which was readmitted to the AFL-CIO last October, 30 years after being expelled on corruption charges. However, a spokesman for Presser said that he was unable to be here because he is in Phoenix recuperating from radiation treatments he had undergone last year for lung cancer.

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