By Jim Miller
Don’t celebrate this Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And please don’t clap for anyone talking about how far we’ve come.
Rather than engaging in the usual empty gestures accompanied by vanilla rhetoric that turns Dr. King into a saint, we should be railing against the fact that last week, by indicating that they are prepared to cripple public sector unions, the Supreme Court of the United States took another huge step in moving the country further and further away from the America that King fought for and eventually gave his life to make a reality.
As Dana Milbank reported last week:
By all appearances at Monday’s argument, the five Republican-appointed justices are ready to upend a 40-year precedent guiding labor relations in favor of a new approach that will deplete public-sector unions’ finances and reduce their political clout. The case, from California, involves arcane issues of “agency fees” and member opt-outs, but make no mistake: This is about campaign finance, and, in particular, propping up the Republican Party.
Citizens United and other recent rulings created the modern era of super PACs and unlimited political contributions by the wealthy. Because there are fewer liberal billionaires (and those who are politically active, such as George Soros and Tom Steyer, tend to shun super PACs in favor of their own projects) the only real counterweight to Republican super PACs in this new era is union money. And the Supreme Court is about to attack that, too.
The only question is how big a loss Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association will be for the unions. It’s virtually certain to be another step toward American oligarchy. The court’s conservative majority, setting aside a professed respect for precedent and states’ authority, is putting a thumb on the scale of justice in favor of the wealthy donors who have purchased the GOP and much of the government.
Robert Reich echoed Milbank’s concerns and went further, tying the high court’s assault on public sector unions to its attack on voting rights and democracy itself:
As the Republican majority on the Supreme Court gets ready to kill off public-sector unions (which can’t function if everyone can free ride off the fees paid by just a few), in the “Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association” case the Court heard yesterday — and thereby pave the way for killing off unions in the private sector (making “right-to-work” laws a Constitutional imperative) — it’s important to see the larger picture.
The Republican Court’s agenda is all about disempowering the majority and further empowering a privileged minority at the top. That’s why they opened the floodgates to big money in politics in “Citizens United” in 2010 and “McCutcheon v. FEC” in 2014. It’s why they gutted the Voting Rights Act in “Shelby vs. Holder” in 2013. It’s why they’ve almost closed the door to class actions against big corporations, in “AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion” in 2011, and “Comcast v. Behrend” in 2013. And it explains their anti-union agenda.
The Republicans on the Supreme Court don’t care about legal precedent (several of their decisions fly directly in the face of previous Court rulings). They don’t worry about legal activism (they’re the most activist court since the Warren Court). They don’t give a fig even about the consistency of their own opinions (don’t even try to figure out how Alito, Scalia, Thomas, and Roberts can square their recent opinions with several of their former ones).
Their goal is to permanently entrench the powerful in America. Not coincidentally, this goal is shared with those who were behind their nominations to begin with, who have subsequently wined and dined several of them, and who have found the plaintiffs and sponsored the litigation that’s got all these cases onto the Court’s docket. Who are they? The Koch brothers and their billionaire allies.
And anyone with more than a superficial knowledge of Dr. King’s politics understands that he saw unions as a transformative force in American life. As King, the man who died in Memphis while supporting striking public sector sanitation workers, put it when speaking to the AFL-CIO in Springfield Illinois in 1965:
The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old- age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.
Civilization began to grow in the economic life of man, and a decent life with a sense of security and dignity became a reality rather than a distant dream.
It is a mark of our intellectual backwardness that these monumental achievements of labor are still only dimly seen, and in all too many circles the term “union” is still synonymous with self-seeking, power hunger, racketeering, and cynical coercion. There have been and still are wrongs in the trade union movement, but its share of credit for triumphant accomplishments is substantially denied in the historical treatment of the nation’s progress.
The same could be said about many historical treatments of Martin Luther King Jr. that ignore his fundamentally radical critique of American society not just with regard to our deeply entrenched racism but also of America’s systemic economic exploitation of working people and our knee jerk embrace of the military-industrial complex.
Indeed, as I wrote in this column last year about his time, “King fought what he characterized as ‘the triple evils of racism, materialism, and militarism,’ sought to restructure ‘an edifice which produces beggars,’ and called for us to move forward with a ‘divine dissatisfaction . . . until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.’ He believed that the ‘whole structure must be changed’ for America to be reborn as a truly humane, egalitarian, and civilized society. Only then would we have “democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action.’”
The real Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would not be following the President’s lead and talking about how to overcome our political divide by finding wrong on “both sides,” he would be unapologetically speaking the truth to power.
MLK would call out the Supreme Court as the refuge of the minority of the opulent guarding against the interests of the majority, a court that has made it clear they believe, along with the first justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay, that “those who own the country ought to govern it.”
Dr. King would know that we are rebuilding and reinforcing “an edifice that creates beggars.” So please, this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, don’t celebrate. Instead, let yourself be filled with “divine dissatisfaction” and do what you can to move our paper-thin democracy closer to the beloved community that MLK imagined.
That’s the only way we can keep the dying dream alive as the gap between our creeds and deeds is getting larger every day.