AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka likes to brag about the access he has to the Obama White House. The White House visitor logs suggest that he almost lives there. Perhaps this is what emboldened him to make an outrageous and self-serving statement last week that The Examiner's Byron York highlighted in his column on Friday. “April 4 [is] the day on which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life for the cause of public collective bargaining,” Trumka said, invoking King's legacy in the fight to preserve perks for well-compensated government workers in Wisconsin. The comparison could not be any less appropriate. If King had been president of the United Mine Workers in 1993, he not would have made excuses for his union members' violence or for the murder of Eddie York, a strikebreaking mining contractor, in July of that year. Trumka, on the other hand, has no qualms about strong-arm tactics, telling the Associated Press: “[I]if you strike a match and you put your finger in it, you're likely to get burned.” This was a barely veiled threat toward any worker who in the future fails to cooperate in his union's often-violent work stoppages.
Dr. King shunned violence right up until the moment he was shot to death. He had been in Memphis to help striking black sanitation workers who were literally dying from unsafe work conditions. Still, King only agreed to take part in their April 1968 demonstration after measures were taken to ensure the rioting from an earlier protest would not be repeated. The day before he died, and five days before the next scheduled demonstration, King delivered a famous address in which he pointed out that the violent behavior had undermined the strikers' cause. He extolled the greater effectiveness of nonviolent resistance in his earlier civil rights battles in Alabama and elsewhere, declaring, “It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence.”
If Trumka is no King, neither are the Wisconsin union protestors in any way analogous to the sanitation workers King was helping. The protestors in Wisconsin are better compensated, on average, than their peers in the private sector. They recently fought in court for their “right” to state-funded Viagra. The sanitation workers, by contrast, were being killed by unsafe equipment and, they claimed, discriminated against by their white supervisors. So we hope Trumka will avoid such comparisons in the future, and apologize for his demeaning use of King's memory to score political points in defense of special privileges for government employees.