WASHINGTON — Last Saturday, union activists, their families and their supporters came by the thousands to the nation's capital to answer the Poor People's Campaign's call for a moral march on Washington. The racially diverse crowd extended for several blocks.
The organizers of the Poor People's and Low Wage Workers' Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls estimate there are 140 million low-wage and low-wealth Americans who made up 35 percent of the nation's electorate in 2020.
According to the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, this makes this cohort of underappreciated voters "a sleeping giant" whose ballot choices could decide the outcome of dozens of swing-district races that will determine who controls Congress in November.
A significant portion of the march's attendees had not yet been born when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. issued his call for the original Poor People's Campaign more than a half-century ago. He did not live to see it. Throughout the five-hour program on Saturday, which featured dozens of speakers from movements for social justice, peace, climate activism and human rights, it became evident that Dr. King's activist torch had been passed from the 20th century into the 21st.
"Young people are with this movement because they understand it is not about left and right and the normal politics — it's about right versus wrong," Rev. Barber told LaborPress just before the program started. He cited recent union organizing drives at Amazon, Starbucks and Dollar General, as well as campaigns for peace, reproductive rights, gun control, universal health care and social justice, as converging in a "moral fusion of everybody" that could be sufficient to "change this country."
"Fifty-four years ago, my father launched the Poor People's Campaign to revolutionize the economic landscape of our nation," the Rev. Bernice King, Dr. KIng's youngest daughter, told the large crowd. "Unfortunately, Dr. Martin Luther King did not live long enough to see it come to fruition. However, on June 19, 1968, my mother Coretta Scott King was here in our nation's capital during the initial Poor People's Campaign … and she made the appeal that poverty is not a longstanding evil of the nation, but an actual act of violence against the dignity, livelihood and humanity of its citizens."
Rev. King, who is also an attorney, continued, "Fifty-four years later, poverty still has a grasp on the soul of our nation. So today, as the bearer of my parents' legacy, as the CEO of the King Center, I join in solidarity with the chorus of voices that say we won't be silent anymore."
"This level of poverty and greed in this, the richest nation in the history of the world, constitutes a moral crisis and a fundamental failure of the policies of greed," proclaimed Rev. Barber, as he convened the marathon program. "The regressive policies which produce 140 million poor and low-wealth people are not benign. They are forms of 'policy murder.'"
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This new iteration of the Poor People's Campaign comes as labor union membership, which Dr. King championed, has fallen to 10.3% of the national workforce, down by half since the early 1980s. Close to a third of the public sector is represented by a union.
Over the last several months, in the midst of the COVID pandemic, there has been a 57% increase in petitions filed by workers seeking a union with the National Labor Relations Board. In the first half of fiscal year 2022, there were 1,174 such petitions.
"No contract, no coffee!" shouted Nikki Taylor of Starbucks Workers United when it was her turn to address the crowd. "With Starbucks' billions, Starbucks workers should not be poor people. … Most of us are making under $15 an hour." Taylor is one of the 'Memphis Seven' who were fired by Starbucks for their organizing efforts, which so far has resulted in 160 locations voting to unionize. "Six months ago, there was zero," Taylor added.
In April, organizers of the independent Amazon Labor Union, led by Chris Smalls, won a landmark organizing vote at Amazon's Staten Island, New York, location where 2,654 workers voted to form a union, while 2,131 voted against. Amazon is contesting that vote. ALU lost a subsequent vote at an adjacent, smaller facility that relies on part-time workers.
"All this unnecessary death happened while we gave corporations $2 trillion to keep them alive — and the richest Americans saw their wealth soar."
"I was inspired by Chris Smalls with his efforts with Amazon and what it brought about," Rev. King told LaborPress offstage at the march. "We are in a season of great sacrifice, and we have been in this kind of period of time when people have not understood that Daddy and them had to put a lot on the line, and that's where we are now. So wherever these young people are when they organize, they mobilize, they strategize — they can plan and change comes that way. It's not instant, oftentimes, but it can come — and it can be inspired by efforts like Chris Smalls."
"We all know that we should not have to be here," said Fred Redmond, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, which represents 12.5 million workers in 57 unions. "We should not have to join in the streets and march and lift our voices to put an end to poverty because poverty is a failure — it's a failure of the system, not of the people. Being poor is not a crime. The crime is accepting a system that allows for poverty. Poverty exists because we allow it to exist."
Although the date of this march coincided with both the actual anniversary of the first Poor People's Campaign and the Juneteenth holiday, planners were also aiming to inspire early engagement in the pivotal 2022 congressional elections. While historically voter turnout drops considerably in non-presidential years, 2018 saw a 49.4% turnout, the highest in a midterm election since 1914.
"Working people understand we have to raise the stakes [this election] because the stakes are getting raised on us by denying voting rights, by denying abortion rights and health care and denying us the ability to join together in unions," SEIU president Mary Kay Henry told LaborPress after she spoke at the march. "So we have to turn out in record numbers in 2022."
The night before the march, organizers and activists held an intimate sunset memorial service at the base of the Lincoln Memorial to mourn the victims of the COVID pandemic. Over one million Americans have died during the pandemic and there's no registry of the many thousands in public-facing jobs who died while worked in government, health care, transit, utilities, emergency services, retail, agriculture or food service.
Back in April, the Poor People's Campaign released the first-of-its-kind comprehensive study of COVID deaths in more than 3,000 U.S. counties that plugged in the intersectionality of poverty, income, race and geography. What the data revealed was thatresidents of poorer neighborhoods were anywhere between two to five times more likely to die than people living in wealthier counties. Public health experts have linked pre-existing chronic illnesses, along with limited access to health care, as contributing factors to the disparity in how communities have fared during the pandemic.
"Remember, this unnecessary death happened while we gave corporations $2 trillion to keep them alive and the richest Americans saw their wealth soar," Rev. Barber told reporters when the report was released. "It's a gross example of what Naomi Klein has called the 'shock doctrine', when the wealthy exploit tragedy to increase their own profits while poor people suffer."
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