Marching on Wall St. to Fulfill King’s Dream: A Jobs Program

By New York City Council Member Charles Barron and Chris Silvera, Secretary-Treasurer, International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 808; past President of the Teamsters National Black Caucus

We will be amongst the many speakers at the “Bail Out People, Not Banks” rally on Wall St. on Friday, April 3.

On Friday morning, just a few hours before the Wall St. rally, the bureau of labor statistics is going to announce that another two-thirds of a million workers got laid off in March.

This is one of the reasons why we intend to use the time allotted us to speak, to call for the creation of a massive jobs program. We are going to call it the “Fulfill King’s Dream Jobs Program” in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We have four reasons for associating King’s name with the jobs program. The first reason is that April 4 will mark the 41st anniversary of Dr. King’s martyrdom. The second reason is that King devoted the final months of his life to launching a movement for the right of all to either a job or an income.

King saw the struggle for the right to a job or an income as nothing less than the second phase of the civil rights movement. Securing a job at a living wage for all was the central demand of the poor people's campaign that King initiated in late 1967.

The third reason is that at no time in our lifetime has the need for the massive jobs program that King dreamed about been more urgently needed. Depression-level layoffs and home foreclosures are populating new tent cities from coast to coast. Whole families are living under bridges and in parks on the outskirts of cities.

The real unemployment rate, if you count those who want full-time jobs but can only find part-time or temporary work, is upwards of 15 percent. Everyone from the World Bank to the National Urban League says that the jobless rate is only going to get worse.

The latest “State of Black America” report, issued by the National Urban League, confirms what everyone already knows. While very few, regardless of race and gender, are not harmed or threatened by the biggest worldwide economic collapse since the 1930s, it is the Black and Latin@ communities that are the most devastated by the crisis--especially Black and Latin@ youth. Jail is not the jobs program for young people that King dreamed about; it is his and should be our worst nightmare.

The unemployment crisis demands a real jobs program, something equal to the size and scope of the Work Projects Administration created by Congress in 1935 to put millions of jobless people to work.

In its first year the WPA created more than 3.4 million jobs (the equivalent of about 10 million jobs today). Under the WPA, workers were paid the prevailing wage in the industry or vocation they worked in.

The stimulus legislation passed by Congress in February may help ease the suffering of some, but it’s not going to reverse or even halt the soaring jobless rate. There is no jobs program currently in effect or even under serious consideration by the government that comes even close to the seriousness and size of the WPA.

Where do we get the money for such a jobs program? When the government is prepared to pump trillions of dollars into the banking system, the question is not where will the money come from, but rather what need should it be devoted to. The $200 billion that the government has given AIG alone could have created anywhere between 3 to 4 million jobs that pay a living wage.

There is another important point that makes the WPA jobs program relevant to today’s crisis. The WPA should have started at an earlier stage of the U.S. and global depression 75 years ago. However, the government delayed putting a serious jobs program in place until it was painfully clear that waiting for the banks to be fixed before putting the jobless back to work was a huge mistake. We must not make the same mistake again.

We don’t think King believed that meeting the needs of the poor and the unemployed must be contingent upon the solvency of JP Morgan Chase, Citicorp, Bank Of America, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, etc.; or contingent on the power of these big banks to turn the economy on and off depending on what makes them richer.

The belief that until the banks are fixed, there can be no jobs, no economy and nothing but layoffs, evictions, cutbacks, fare hikes, tuition increases, etc., is not some commandment decreed by heaven; it’s a rule made down here on Earth to protect the interest of the few against that of the many.

We refuse to accept the rules that say that the only good way to do things is the way that makes rich capitalists happy and leaves the rest of us at their mercy. Such rules must be changed. The only certain thing is that nothing will change unless people demand it.

Here’s our fourth reason for naming the jobs program after Dr. King. The election of an African-American president is without a doubt the realization of a part of King’s dream. But a president is not a substitute for a mass movement for social justice.

King knew that the captains of industry were not going to suddenly wake up one morning believing that the cause of economic and social justice was superior to their profit motive and thus create good paying jobs for the poor. King knew that it would take a mass social movement to get the job done.

It is a mistake--and a dangerous one--for those of us who are still rejoicing over how we made history last November to simply sit on the sidelines and wait to see how things turn out, instead of raising hell. King served the interests of the downtrodden and oppressed. Obama must serve all sides. To the extent that Obama wants to do things that directly bail out poor and working people, don’t forget that there are powerful people in Washington and on Wall St. who are dedicated to stopping him. Those powerful people will prevail unless they see and hear the angry masses marching in the streets below their ivory towers.

The popular outrage over the bailout of the banks is a precious and powerful force. It should not--it must not--be wasted. Let’s focus that anger into the struggle for the things that we need.

We’ll be on Wall St. on Friday, April 3 demanding that the unemployed be bailed out with a real jobs program. We invite you to join us.