Monday, January 21, 2008

"I'm Happy Tonight. I'm Not Worried About Anything. I'm Not Fearing Any Man..."

Today is Martin Luther King Day, a federal holiday down there in the United States. It is so because the American working class made it so.

It’s useful to remember that what MLK accomplished, he accomplished in alliance with trade unionists. It is also proper to recall that the reason he was in Memphis that day 40 years ago when he was assassinated was to demonstrate solidarity with striking members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The movement to establish a holiday in MLK’s memory sprang from the labour movement. Its beginnings can be traced to 1969, when a small group of workers at a General Motors plant in New York refused to work on MLK’s birthday, and the bosses backed down when a larger group walked out in solidarity with the GM workers. Hospital workers in New York won MLK’s birthday as a contract holiday later that year, then followed other hospital workers, then 80,000 dressmakers. By 1973, union leader Cleveland Robinson was urging his members to take the day off “regardless of contractual obligations or permissions of employers,” and his union pledged its full resources to any worker punished for doing so.

And so the movement grew. One state after another established Martin Luther King Day as a statutory holiday, and the labour movement’s support for Jimmy Carter’s successful presidential bid in 1976 resulted in the declaration of MLK Day as a federal holiday.



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