Getting Back to the Dream

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot while on a mission to Memphis, where he’d gone to rally sanitation workers trying to organize with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. This was an ongoing mission for Dr. King, elevating work and the value of labor through unions. He helped move organized labor to the center of the civil rights movement; few knew better the importance of organizing for economic and social justice.

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Memphis sanitation workers deliver an important message with a strike in 1967. Five months after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in 1968 while supporting them, they won their union. (Photo by Richard L. Copley)

Today, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., in honor of his birthday, which occurred a few days ago. If he were alive today, he would have been deeply saddened that anti-union forces in two industrial states – Michigan and Indiana – were able to pass “right-to-work-for-less” laws last year, further undermining not only unions but also the working and living standards for workers everywhere.

Dr. King exposed the lie of “right to work” this way: “We must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. … Wherever these laws have passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer, and there are no civil rights.”

Thus, while Dr. King would have been proud to see the second inauguration of President Barack Obama today, he would have called on his friend in the White House to expand the opportunities for all Americans to achieve a piece of the dream that he famously evoked in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial nearly 50 years ago. Yes, we have made great strides in elevating civil rights, but we are losing ground in the struggle for worker rights, for economic justice.

The evidence that we are losing the battle for economic justice is in the yawning divide between the incomes of the rich and the incomes of the rest of us. The middle-class is being squeezed into extinction as more wealth goes to the top 1 percent, and more Americans face poverty with the downward pressure on wages, and on the availability of good jobs.

This is not some invisible hand leading us down this primrose path to greater inequality but the result of specific policies, as the Economic Policy Institute reveals. Not only have these policies and laws rewarded investment at the expense of work, but they also have shut off avenues of opportunity for those who labor in the virtual vineyard of the American economy. Particularly onerous are laws that undermine the viability of unions – not just “right to work” but also regulatory hurdles that frustrate the desire of workers to gain the opportunity to bargain for better conditions.

Dr. King’s dream of equal justice under the law will not be realized as long as corporations wield their economic power, through their legislative and policy-making surrogates, to block workers from forming unions and gaining a seat at the table. A case in point is the tactics of American Airlines, which has used the bankruptcy courts to steamroll over contract agreements and to shred jobs and retirement security for thousands of workers unprotected by union contracts.

Dr. King would be proud today of the campaign by the gate and reservation agents at American Airlines who have been scapegoated and sacrificed before the altar of corporate greed. CEO Tom Horton and other executives of the company will walk away with millions of dollars when this deal goes down while many dedicated employees are pushed out the door, with little to show for their years of service.

Hundreds of agents from across the country rallied outside bankruptcy court last year, demanding a chance to be heard and urging support for representation by the Communications Workers of America. Here are some of the voices from across American:

On Jan. 15, the National Mediation Board declared that the agents at American Airlines were unsuccessful in gaining representation, falling 150 votes short – 3,052 to 2,902. It was a triumph for a multimillion-dollar anti-union campaign and a huge loss for customer service at the airline. It means that the steady degradation of these jobs and compensation is likely to continue, including the outsourcing of key passenger services to independent contractors who pay as little as minimum wage. The agents’ only hope now is a merger with a competing airline, US Airways, where agents already are represented by CWA.

American Airlines and US Airways management is now negotiating with the bankruptcy court, the creditor’s committee and the unions representing employees from both airlines – pilots, flight attendants, ramp workers, mechanics, and the agents at US Airways.  Only American Airlines’ agents do not have a seat at the table during this process, thanks largely to the underhanded tactics employed by American Airlines management.

CWA filed for the representation election in November 2011. The company did not cooperate with the agency, refusing to turn over mailing address labels of employees as the NMB sought to determine eligibility. Working through CWA, the agents turned in their own mail address labels, urging the board to proceed with the election without the cooperation of the company. To prevent this, the company filed suit, claiming the NMB should adopt new rules pushed through Congress three months after CWA sought the election.

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American Airlines agents join CWA organizers in marching to the National Mediation Board and presenting a set of mailing labels, urging the vote for representation to proceed without the company’s cooperation, if necessary. (Photo by Ben Dalgetty)

The company, having declared bankruptcy with $4 billion in the bank, has now spent more than $2 million just on the court actions to stop the vote, not including the payments to union-busting firms for communication and slick videos opposing the union. They found a district court judge in Texas to issue a stay to stop the election, but that decision was unanimously rejected by a federal appeals court and refused also by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Even after a year’s delay, as the NMB was set to count the votes, American Airlines wrote that it was prepared to challenge the decision before the full Supreme Court, tying the hands of agents once again. Deep pockets, along with the cooperation of policymakers and the courts, frustrate the will of ordinary working people under current U.S. labor law. Until our nation confronts this built-in injustice in the American system, we cannot get “to the Mountaintop.” We cannot realize the dream that Dr. King tied to the aspirations of Lincoln, the hopes of every American.

If he were alive today, I believe Dr. King would urge Obama to fight for “card-check” legislation during his second term, to overcome the innate advantage that corporations have in blocking unionization and to give workers a fair shot at gaining a voice at work. If more than half of all employees say they want a union, signing a card, they should be able to get it – before the company mounts its multimillion-dollar campaigns to thwart the will of the majority.

That’s how we can restore the economic vitality of our nation and realize Dr. King’s dream of economic and social justice.

Is Change Gonna Come?

As discussed in this blog a few weeks ago, Gerald Marks was a musical genius who applied his art to the service of a cause – his love Edna Berger, first of all, but also to Edna’s mission to give creative people in the news business a seat at the table to negotiate with the boss. She was the first woman to lead The Newspaper Guild’s organizing, as the senior field representative. She was relentless, and he loved that about her.

Gerald bequeathed much of his estate, literally “All of Me” and other pop royalties from Tin Pan Alley on, to broaden a scholarship fund for young women created by Edna’s close friends and acolytes, which has grown into the Berger-Marks Foundation. In November, the foundation awarded, in Edna’s name, cash grants to young women of distinction, who are leading the movement for social and economic justice.

It was the second Edna award, and a credit to Gerald’s generosity and Edna’s passion. He put his money where his heart was, creating a fund to do good deeds, to help encourage a new generation of women who care about social justice, and to lead others to care. Like Veronica Avila, who won the 2012 Edna because of her work organizing restaurant workers in Chicago, helping them rise out of poverty.

I was reminded of the power of music again this week on a couple of accounts, including the “Robin Hood” concert for Hurricane Sandy victims in New York City, an amazing outpouring of love and affection for a city and a region, including the Jersey Shore, that has nourished a generation of artists.

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Bruce Springsteen and Jon BonJovi celebrate “La Causa,” to revive the Jersey Shore.

Jersey boys Bruce Springsteen and Jon BonJovi kicked off the concert, followed by legend after legend: Billy Joel conjuring up the “New York State of Mind,” Roger Watters invoking Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” with Eddy Vedder, Paul McCartney reviving Nirvana, Alicia Keyes and Kanye West, Chris Martin of Coldplay backing up Michael Stitt of REM, the Who rocking the house, Daltry shirtless again, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones prancing around a “crossfire hurricane” like they weren’t really 69, going on 70.

As someone said, it was like my iPod was playing the concert. Here were many of my favorite artists playing their hearts out, with this perpetual offer of the gift of music, this act of love for New Yorkers who are suffering. Here, take out music, please. Please donate. We’re giving our music back to you.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: the other experience. I’m dealing with a corporation that controls the assets of the estate of a musical artist, and the agents of this corporation have made clear to me that generosity and love do not rule the music business, Gerald Marks notwithstanding. To have our music embrace you and your cause, you must deal with a breed of mendacious executors of musical legacy who insert their own values into the process.

This is ABKCO, the keepers of the flame of “A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke’s remarkable paean to the spirit of a people rising, which has been adopted as an anthem for the civil rights movement and other campaigns to set people free. Few hymns lay bare the human struggle more than this:

ABKCO kept the song bottled up for three decades in a legal fight with RCA Records, which also had a claim based on its earlier recordings. Even the producers of Malcolm X were prohibited from including the song on the 1992 movie sound track, although it still played during the movie.

ABKCO is a musical publishing company founded by Allen Klein, the former manager of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones who proved to be a litigious suitor of their musical legacy. The company has demonstrated that it will go to court at the drop of a hat, and apparently there is no lack of hats at ABKCO.

Thus, I should not have been surprised when ABKCO rejected our request to use “A Change is Gonna Come” as a rally point for agents at American Airlines, who finally have a chance to vote for representation by the Communications Workers of America after the company tied them up for nearly a year with administrative foot-dragging and a frivolous suit pushed all the way to the Supreme Court.

Some people in this Internet age of “free stuff” would not ask, of course, but unions have always defended intellectual property – many great musicians, writers and dramatic artists have defended the rights to their work through their unions, from the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) to Actors Equity to the Screen Actors Guild to the American Guild of Musical Artists, and many others. The National Writers Union, and its formative president Jonathan Tasini, sued the New York Times to ensure that freelance writers were paid for their work that the Times posted on the Internet.

Gerald Marks secured his legacy not only with his songbook, but also as a longtime board member for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), which licenses the use of music for members. I had hoped that I could go through ASCAP to inspire our agents with “A Change is Gonna Come,” but ABKCO has secured the rights through many years of litigation.

I wonder what Sam Cooke would think about how a song he wrote to inspire – there were few such gospel-tinged songs in pop music when he wrote it in 1963 – has been bottled up by a publishing company whose main mission is apparently to keep a stable of lawyers in alligator shoes.

Sam Cooke’s daughter, Linda Cooke, now known as Zeriiya Zekkariyas, has sued the company to receive more than what the company says is the $650,000 she has gotten over the past 48 years since her father’s death. In her suit, she states, the company has showed “no consideration, for Sam Cooke’s background, as a spiritual singer, and that his Master Recordings should be available, to those asking to use his works, to support statements, of progress, for people of his own nature, and purpose.”

I think Sam Cooke would have looked favorably on the struggle of American Airlines agents to gain a voice at work, at a time when they are being laid off and outsourced, and their jobs diminished by a company that is shredding their rights under cover of bankruptcy.  But the number crunchers are in control, and “people of his own nature, and purpose” can be pushed aside.

Reminder: Martin Luther King was in Memphis to support the right of sanitation workers to join a union when he was gunned down – surely the act that galvanized the civil rights movement and the sentiment expressed so well in Sam Cooke’s song. The right to be represented at work should be a basic civil right, as it is in many countries around the world.

Few promoters or record company executives were as reviled as Klein, who died in 2009. He was clearly a shrewd businessman who managed to gain the rights to a lot of music he did not create. And I’m sure those millions of dollars he hoarded from buying and selling the rights to music probably helped to muffle the sharp words of John Lennon in his kiss-off to Klein in “Steel and Glass” in 1974:

That’s an indictment of Klein and the class of entrepreneur who would exploit the power of music for personal gain. The Robin Hood concert for Hurricane Sandy victims confirms what we know is true in our hearts – music is for us all. What these artists give to us is really invaluable. It transcends the petty deal-making and profit-taking.

Can we get an app for that?