Seeking Work and Dignity King’s “Second Phase”

01/17/2011 § Leave a comment

[dr. king leading a march from roxbury to the state house]

i wrote this piece 3 years ago to commemorate 40 years since king’s assassination in PeaceWork Magazine:

The US would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men (sic) and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. — Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967

In his prophetic last volume, Where Do We Go From Here? Dr. King points towards the abolition of poverty as the critical “second phase” in the struggle for justice. Even after the Civil Rights Movement won so called “equality” in 1964, it became clear that the right to sit next to whites at a lunch counter was useless without the funds for a meal. In his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam,” King maintained that an economy dominated by military spending existed at the expense of underfunding the poor.

In 2003, Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner and a cadre of other seasoned community organizers known as the District 7 Roundtable launched the Fund the Dream Campaign. Rooted in King’s call to challenge the ë”evil triplets of…racism, materialism, and militarism,” Fund the Dream resurrected King’s framework to build economic peace by organizing the under- and unemployed.

At the time of his assassination, King was in Memphis, standing with unionizing sanitation workers and building towards a national Poor People’s Campaign for guaranteed jobs or income. Today, facing economic recession, 50 percent unemployment among young African American men and growing poverty amongst single mothers, organizing against joblessness in Boston’s poorest neighborhoods has become a matter of survival.

In the summer of 2005, District 7 Roundtable launched the Boston Workers Alliance (BWA) as a new union of under and unemployed workers. As a member-driven organization, our central campaign has focused on reforming the state’s criminal record check (CORI) system to challenge job discrimination against those with criminal histories. In Massachusetts, there are 2.3 million CORIs on file, which include dismissed and not guilty cases, as well as incidents as much as 15 years in the past. Empirical studies confirm that criminal records are used more negatively against people of color than whites, even for the same offenses. As a result, CORI discrimination has drawn a line of economic exclusion around our poorest and most policed neighborhoods.

In January of 2008, BWA and our ally organizations won a major breakthrough as Governor Deval Patrick released an Executive Order to mitigate the effects of the CORI. While more meaningful reforms are caught up in the legislature, this action acknowledged the strength of our constituent-led movement for work and dignity.

While King promoted the concept of guaranteed employment at a federal level, the BWA also recognizes that local prosperity depends on our ability to create jobs and businesses for ourselves. While policy-oriented campaigns are needed to reconfigure power relations in this country, we move past King’s call and also promote autonomous-style economic development.

Our ability to create real wealth and power for our members depends on our ability to move past reliance on traditional corporations for jobs. To that end, the BWA explores worker-owned cooperatives as a job creation model where the employees own their businesses. Unlike traditional corporations, workers democratically determine their work conditions and elect their governing board. This form of ownership returns co-op profits to the workers rather than bosses or outside shareholders.

BWA promotes this co-op model especially to capture a growing number of eco-friendly, “green collar” jobs. While Democratic Presidential candidates have stepped onto the green jobs bandwagon, their discussions around this sector remain immature. Demand for renewable energy and conservation will see explosive, exponential growth in our generation. With an influx of speculative capital, we should ask whether CO2 reduction would simply add to the coffers of large corporations, or whether green collar jobs can represent real pathways out of poverty.

While King’s vision for winning economic rights was cut tragically short, forty years later his call to action is undeniable. It is time to revisit a political demand for nationally guaranteed jobs or income, staking new opportunities in transforming a military- and prison-based economy into a sustainable one. As we put King’s national vision into practice at a local level, BWA calls for worker-ownership and job programs for our most marginalized members. Where the dominant discourse ignores, blames, and represses the poor, King would have imagined that ex-prisoners, the under- and unemployed, new immigrants, and youth could rescue this nation from the precipice of self-destruction. In Boston, and in cities across this country, we can build these solutions from the earth up.

Aaron Tanaka
is an organizer with the Boston Workers’ Alliance.




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