by James Parks, Jan 19, 2009

Union civil rights activists this weekend celebrated the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., by commiting to hold the new administration and Congress accountable and carry on the work they did in the 2008 election to mobilize workers in support of a strong progressive agenda.

More than 800 participants in the annual AFL-CIO King Day celebration in New Orleans, which ends today, also responded to President-elect Obama’s call to honor King with community service. They joined with hundreds of area union members to roll up their sleeves in more than 20 different community service projects in a city that continues to suffer three years later from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Over two days, the activists helped repair an African American museum, churches and homes in hard-hit St. Bernard Parish.

Transport Workers President James Little told the participants that Obama’s election opens the door for more progressive economic and social policies, but workers must be vigilant in keeping the Obama White House and the new Congress focused on workers’ issues.

One way Obama can make a big difference in the lives of working families is to ensure every worker has the freedom to choose a union and that labor laws are enforced, says Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice. Bobo, the author of Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid–And What We Can Do About It, says Obama can help fulfill King’s vision of a society where workers are treated fairly by bolstering and stepping up enforcement of wage laws.

Another top priority, she says, should be passing the Employee Free Choice Act.

Wage theft is a national crisis. As many as 2 or 3 million workers are not being paid minimum wage, millions are denied overtime pay.

As Dr. King preached, wage theft was wrong in biblical times. It was wrong during slavery. It was wrong in Memphis for the sanitation workers he was fighting for when he died, and it is wrong today.    

Nat LaCour, former secretary-treasurer of AFT and a resident of New Orleans, says the city still is feeling the effects of Katrina, but some progress has been made in rebuilding. LaCour, who moderated a panel on the current conditions in New Orleans for the conference, says the Obama administration should make sure that its economic stimulus package includes plans to strengthen New Orleans’ levees and rebuild housing.

The conference theme, “Civil Rights, Labor Rights–Turning America Around,” says it all, according to Richard Womack, former assistant to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney:

We’re all about change, but change of a positive nature. We can celebrate our victories, but we can’t forget that the battle goes on. Dr. King died to make this a better world for all of us and we can’t let that dream die.

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