The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees offers a video explicitly comparing protesters supporting public-sector unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Florida to Martin Luther King Jr.:
Indeed, when King was assassinated in Memphis, he had traveled to the city to support AFSCME sanitation workers. But the issues of dispute in Memphis were pretty distinct from the issues of dispute in the states today.
During a heavy rainstorm in Memphis on February 1, 1968, two black sanitation workers had been crushed to death when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered. On the same day in a separate incident also related to the inclement weather, 22 black sewer workers had been sent home without pay while their white supervisors were retained for the day with pay. About two weeks later, on February 12, more than 1,100 of a possible 1,300 black sanitation workers began a strike for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition. Mayor Henry Loeb, unsympathetic to most of the workers’ demands, was especially opposed to the union. Black and white civic groups in Memphis tried to resolve the conflict, but the mayor held fast to his position.
Despite a great deal of overheated rhetoric, the legislative efforts in Wisconsin and other states in no way eliminate the right of any worker to join a union. In Wisconsin, unions would retain the right to collective bargaining on salaries. Public-safety employees are completely exempted.
Of course, the legislation in Wisconsin stops the state from collecting union dues, making these dues much harder to collect. The furious reaction from union leadership seems to suggest a lack of faith that their members will happily, quickly, and gladly donate their dues to their local union representative with the absence of the automatic dues collection from their members’ paychecks. It’s almost as if the union leadership fears that their members will find membership in the union not worth the smaller paycheck every month.
In the AFSCME video, King declares, “we are tired of working full-time jobs for part-time income.” Depending on your perspective, the comparison of the conditions that King denounced in Memphis in 1968 to the condition of unionized state and local governments today is either appalling or laughable. There’s been much dispute as to whether public-sector salaries and benefits in these states are comparable to private-sector ones or whether state and local workers are wildly overpaid (in addition to being largely unaffected by this grueling multi-year recession). But without the slightest sense of their own self-aggrandizement, the AFSCME quotes King on “full-time jobs for part-time income” and finds it applicable to their current fight.