More than 100 union workers marched through the streets of downtown Jamaica on Monday to commemorate the 43rd anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and to stand in solidarity with fellow union employees in Wisconsin, who are fighting to retain their collective bargaining rights.
King was killed on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tenn., where he was showing support for sanitation workers who had been on strike and were demanding higher wages and better treatment. Similar demonstrations to the one held in Queens took place across the country.
“Today, we realize that labor is under attack,” said Leroy Gadsden, president of the Jamaica chapter of the NAACP. “We see a definite connection between labor rights, human rights and civil rights, therefore when we look at America and we see Wisconsin and you hear elected officials — governors and mayors — talking about labor is the fault of the recession and everything that went wrong financially in America, we are here to say labor is being scapegoated.”
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill into law at the beginning of March that would take away nearly all the collective bargaining rights of most of the state’s public employees. He said the measure would help save $30 million by the end of the budget year in June. It will also force union workers to pay for more for health insurance and pension costs.
Participants in the rally could be heard chanting slogans like “Union power,” “They say cut backs, we say fight back,” and “The people united can never be defeated.” They drew attention from passersby, who stopped for a closer look. Residents stuck their heads out of apartment windows and bus drivers honked their horns in solidarity.
Crystal Jones, a member of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1056, held a sign that read, “Don’t steal our right to collective bargaining,” and stressed the importance of unions. “We’re working people too, just like those right-wing politicians who are trying to take away our bargaining rights,” she said. “We need to support our families. Unions are very important to communities worldwide.”
Luis Alzate, also of the ATU, said he thinks if MLK were alive today, he would have been proud of the peaceful public display, which also featured marchers from SEIU 32BJ, the South East Queens County Young Democrats and the Jamaica branch of the NAACP.
“This is to acknowledge the connection between workers rights and civil rights — something that Martin Luther King stood for,” Alzate said. “In a time when many people are looking to unions as enemies, we want to enlighten people and let them know that we are here to protect workers’ rights.”
NAACP member Adrienne Eadi-Adams expressed similar sentiment, “We talk a lot about his dream, but we don’t a lot about why he died and the cause that he died for — and it was in support of unions,” she said of the slain civil rights leader. “It’s so important that we never let the nation forget what a great man he was and the sacrifices that he made. It’s the least we can do.”
The rally was followed by a special service at Grace Episcopal Church, during which speeches by union representatives and elected officials were intertwined with religious songs and music.
“This is our Memphis,” said ATU Local 1056 President Daneek Miller. “What are we prepared to do? Are we prepared to come together as we have today in the name of justice, peace, unity, labor, faith and oneness — or are we prepared to perish as we will if we remain separated?”