Think back to Aug. 28, 1963. More than a quarter-million labor and civil rights activists led by Martin Luther King Jr. march onto the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to demand good jobs at decent wages and strict enforcement and expansion of the laws guaranteeing meaningful civil and economic rights to all Americans.
The demands, spelled out in Dr. King's famous "I have a Dream" speech that day, will be forcefully raised once again by a fiftieth anniversary March from the Lincoln Memorial to the King Memorial on the Mall this August 24.
The 2013 march has been called for very good reason: The need for greatly strengthened labor and civil rights is at least as urgent today as it was in 1963.
By any measure, the 1963 March was a huge success. It had a direct and strong influence on the enactment a year later of laws prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations and the passage two years later of the Voting Rights Act that enabled many African-Americans to freely cast ballots for the first time.
But despite the successes that followed the march, the nation once again faces severe economic and social problems. Consider:
*Voter suppression has become a serious problem once more, with several states imposing new restrictions on the right to vote that have been upheld in court.
*Unemployment remains notably high, particularly among African-American workers, and young workers generally, even as a great need for workers to rebuild the nation's crumbling transportation and energy infrastructure continues to mount.
*Jobless workers now, as then, need much more government aid, with unemployment insurance payments averaging only $300 a week. Many workers who manage to find jobs are able to work only part-time or only temporarily, and for less pay than they made on previous jobs.
*Millions of women workers face blatant job discrimination, as do older workers, the young and African-American workers in general. They often are paid less than others doing the same work, and often are denied promotions that they've earned. Women sometimes face sexual harassment as well.
*Millions of workers, male and female alike, are forced to live on poverty-level pay, including those workers making the grossly inadequate federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Many of the country's fast-food workers are lucky if they make even that.
*Millions lack paid sick leave needed to care for sick children and other family members and to keep them from having to work when ill and endanger the health of others as well as themselves.
*Public employees, who perform some of the country's most vital work, are under steady attack by politicians and others who seize on them as scapegoats by blaming the workers, many of them women and people of color, for the economic problems that beset government at all levels. They strive mightily to cut the employees 'pay and pensions and other benefits and mute their political and economic voices.
*Income inequality is a severe problem. The gap between the haves and have-nots is downright spectacular. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute showed, for instance, that the CEOs of major companies make on average about 273 times more than the average worker. That's right average executive pay is almost three times the average pay of ordinary workers. Are those who direct work really worth so much more than those who
actually do the work?
*Thousands of workers are endangered by lax enforcement of job safety laws, thousands shortchanged by employers who fail to pay them what they've been promised and clearly earned.
*Anti-labor employers openly violate laws that promise workers the right of unionization that would enable them to effectively try to improve their inadequate pay and working conditions. That's one of the key reasons the share of workers in unions has declined to a 97-year low of barely 11 percent.
*Despite the rise of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union, the men, women -and too often children — who harvest the food that sustains us all are barely surviving on their poverty level wages.
*Free trade agreements and the offshoring of U.S. jobs have led to the loss of millions of domestic jobs.
President Clayola Brown of the AFL-CIO's A. Philip Randolph Institute, a key 2013 march sponsor named for the leader of the 1963 march, notes that as in 1963, "the job situation is deplorable. Today, we have 30-year-old people who have never had a full-time job in their lives."
Brown will be among the thousands of union and civil rights advocates who, like the marchers fifty years ago, are expected to gather on the National Mall Aug. 24 to raise their demands for justice, as they march from one to the other of the sculpted likenesses of two of the greatest advocates of social and economic justice who've ever lived.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.
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