DETROIT - "There is no doubt Detroit was the right place to come," said Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, in opening the labor federation's 26th annual Martin Luther King Holiday Observance Conference here Jan. 12. She was referring to the many historical ties Dr. King had to the city. His renowned August 1963 Washington D.C. "I have a Dream" speech was first given to tens of thousands in Detroit the previous June, with much of it written in Detroit at Solidarity House, the United Auto Workers headquarters.
Holt Baker was also referring to the current Republican attack on workers and this city. Labor will honor Dr. King by recommitting to his fight for social and economic justice, she said. Acknowledging that the challenges are many, she said, "It's a new day, a new labor movement," and "victory can come to the 99 percent if we stand united."
One illustration of that "new day" in labor is the leading role played by women. It was noteworthy that in addition to Holt Baker, Karla Swift, president of the Michigan State AFL-CIO, and Saundra Williams, president of the Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO, gave welcoming comments.
Swift decried the "death by a thousand cuts" inflicted on working families in Michigan. Teachers are being stripped of bargaining rights, she noted, the tax burden is shifted to seniors and the poor, unemployment benefits are cut and emergency managers are being given unbridled power to cancel municipal union contracts and sell public assets.
"It's time to build an economy that works for everyone, not just the 1 percent" Swift said, declaring, "We will work our tail off to win back the Statehouse."
Regarding Republican efforts to introduce "right to work" in Michigan, Williams quoted Dr. King, saying, "We must guard against being fooled by false slogans." Williams continued, "'Right to work' provides no rights and no work."
To the 550 conference attendees Williams also noted another new development that King would have celebrated: "Labor cares about the entire community."
Holt Baker, Swift and Williams presented longtime Michigan Congressman John Conyers Jr. with the Justice, Peace and Freedom Award for his devotion to workers' rights and civil rights.
To loud applause, Conyers, who was first elected to the U.S. House in 1964, said he is now working on the Employee Free Choice Act which allows workers to vote on union recognition with a "quick, fair ballot with no interference from employers."
Looking ahead to the 2012 elections, Conyers said, "We have to educate our brothers and sisters. Some of the 99 percent are not voting with the 99 percent."
Conyers said he had known King well and said King had guided his political career. After the civil rights leader's assassination, Conyers said he gave deep thought about how to honor King, and then detailed the 15-year fight he led to have Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday finally recognized as a national holiday in 1983.
"We got a history lesson from the real historian," commented Holt Baker.
Rev. Wendell Anthony, Detroit NAACP president and pastor of Fellowship Chapel, decried the voter suppression laws and emergency manager threats that are making Michigan "the Mississippi of the North." If an emergency manager is appointed for Detroit, half of all African Americans in the state will have lost the right to choose their own leaders, he pointed out.
Expressing the spirit of Dr. King, Holt Baker said labor has learned something important this past year: "the strength of collective action" and "of public protest." When we stand together with those who share our values, "the numbers are on our side and victory can be ours," she said.