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By Paul Hill
HOUSTON - I attended the AFL-CIO's national conference celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Houston. It was a glorious tribute to a great man. Union activists from all over the U.S. convened in Houston. Unionists from New York, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania and many other states attended and made their presence known in profound ways. Representatives from the United Mine Workers, Unite Here, TWU, AFSCME, AFT, UAW, CWA, IBEW, Ironworkers, Machinists, Painters, Carpenters and many others were present. About 500 delegates attended and were treated to enlightening speeches on the relationship between civil rights and the labor movement and the importance of unified action to support working people's interests. I felt honored just to be present.
Delegates heard from labor and civil rights luminaries such as the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), Norm Hill (A. Phillip Randolph Institute - APRI), Rev. Al Sharpton and Linda Chavez-Thompson (Executive Vice President, AFL-CIO) among many others. All were magnificent.
The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery called for a reinvigoration of the "coalition of conscience" and stated he wanted to ordain labor activists as "chaplains of the common good." He also called for a "coalition of the people's agenda" and noted that Martin Luther King, Jr. was committed to solidarity and unity to achieve the common good.
"In the old days of anti-communist hysteria, the nation elected democratic institutions, we compromised principles, we sacrificed ideals, we glorified violence, we maximized the material, minimized the spiritual, we dehumanized the poor, we trivialized social sensitivity, we castrated compassion, we demonized the saints and canonized the devils. All this in the name of fighting the evil empire", he reminded us and then called for activists to use the MLK, Jr. holiday to work for liberation.
He called for activists to "fight for peace as vigorously as we fight for war." Rev. Lowery then proceeded to attack the forces that divide us and noted the exploitation of the trauma of 911 and challenged people of conscience to resist the tactics used by the ruling elite to divide us, such as "homophobia" and the manipulation that is going on in the Middle East. He reminded us that "Jesus identified himself with the least…He did not identify with the fat cats" and "Martin gave his life for the least of us." He also called for a compassionate and sane attitude towards immigration and to save our youth from the exploitation of drugs. He expressed the need for a "rebirth of the excitement of our task when we work for the common good" and added "we need a new belly full of fire - fire that comes from doing the right thing."
Norm Hill (APRI) told us that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man of eloquent words, but also of action. He maintained that King's principles are relevant today. He believed that King's commitment to mass action and non-violence in the pursuit of racial equality and economic justice is just as relevant today as it was at the time of King's death. Hill stated that he believed that King would have spoken out against the exploitation of immigrants and "the pitting of one group against another…his commitment was to the unity of mankind."
Fred Mason, of USLAW led a workshop on the effect of the Iraq war on people of color and put the problem in terms that everyone can understand, "$300 billion have been taken out of our communities to fight this war to kill hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq…to sacrifice over 3000 U.S. lives." He gave an example to think about, "we can spend $14,000 for a single cluster bomb or put 3 children in HeadStart programs for a year." Curtis Muhammad of New Orleans quoted some startling statistics indicating that 70% of African Americans are "poor" and of that group "65% can't read or write or do numeracy…35% of (black) males between the ages of 15 and 35 become members of the prison industrial complex." Fred Mason remarked that all this is going on and "We ain't even mad." He told the audience that it is "all right to be mad." Jean Hervey pointed out that we are spending "$266,666,670 per day in Iraq" and that over 3000 are dead and over 122,000 are wounded and over 600,000 Iraqis are dead. She noted that the Iraq war is second only to VietNam in length and lethalness. She posed the question "Who's profiting over this at whose expense?" She reported that over 150 federal programs which benefit poor and working people have been "wiped out" by the Bush administration to include community service programs, and emergency medical programs for children.
To symbolize Martin Luther King's commitment to solidarity and action, conference attendees participated in a number of community services projects in Houston. I worked on a project which sought to beautify the Martin Luther King, Jr. Early Childhood Center. Over 200 union activists took part and planted azaleas and magnolia trees. Other projects included beautifying the S.H.A.P.E. community center, a city park and senior center. Houston activists indicated that the staff of the community center was "overcome with joy" at the help they received. The staff of the Early Childhood Center was also gracious and grateful for the work done by the trade unionists.
The conference was concluded with another action by attendees on the MLK, Jr.
holiday. Union activists had the largest contingent in one of the three Houston
parades commemorating Martin Luther King's birthday.
/They included several big trucks commemorating the Memphis Sanitation Workers'
strike of 1968.
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