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Larry Matheney: Labor Day 2012 is the beginning

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Virtually forgotten by younger generations, West Virginia native Walter Reuther was one of the most effective Americans ever to live but Walter Reuther is a name we should not forget, especially now, when fair treatment, living wages, and health care still elude so many workers in our country.

Walter Reuther walked arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King Jr. and Reuther convinced a wet-behind-the-ears freshman senator named Ted Kennedy to hold a national summit on the right of health care for all citizens. Walter Reuther also wrestled with corporate greed and human exploitation. He knew change wouldn't come from a lone individual dreaming of a better world, but that change came from one life joined with many others. Reuther used collective bargaining to harness the power of workers while serving as president of the United Auto Workers.

We will always clearly remember a powerful speech delivered on Aug. 28, 1963, on the steps of our capitol in Washington, D.C., a speech about having a dream, proclaimed by a young Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. The other great leader who spoke that day was Walter Reuther and he knew you can't have true freedom without jobs: jobs that pay fairly, jobs that permit a person to retain their humanity and their dignity.

Walter Reuther was a passionate pioneer for the dignity and worth of each human life and these were his words on that day, "American democracy has been too long on pious platitudes and too short on practical performances. One of the problems is what I call too much high-octane hypocrisy in America. To me, today's question is a moral question which transcends partisan politics, and this rally today should be the first step in a total effort to mobilize the moral conscience of America to ask the people in Congress of both parties to rise above their partisan differences."

The question of jobs and equality is crucial because we will not solve anything as long as 99 percent of Americans are treated as second-class economic citizens. I am for workers' rights and equality as a matter of human decency and justice.

This Labor Day 2012 is not the end, it's the beginning. It's the beginning of a great moral crusade to arouse Americans to the unfinished work of Dr. King and Walter Reuther as workers seek democracy and equality.

We must search for answers in the light of reason through rational and responsible action, such as nonviolent civil disobedience when appropriate.

We must let this Labor Day 2012 be the beginning of that crusade to mobilize the moral conscience of America so that we can win freedom and justice and equality and dignified fair-wage jobs and first-class citizenship for every American, not just 1 percent of Americans, not only in certain parts of America but in all of America.

We must all become champions for the dignity and worth of each human life, as did the great labor leader Walter Reuther while remembering this message of Dr. Martin Luther King: "We must rise up with a greater readiness, stand with greater determination move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be."

Matheney is secretary-treasurer of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, a group of more than 575 unions.


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