Thirty-six years ago, President Ronald Reagan signed a law designating the third Monday of every January as a federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Monday, state and local governments across the country again will mark the day as an official holiday for their employees. But a small number of cities, towns and villages – including a handful in Buffalo Niagara – will remain open for business as usual.
That list includes the Town of Tonawanda, the cities of North Tonawanda and Lockport and the villages of Kenmore and Blasdell.
Officials in those communities say they mean no disrespect to King. They typically say they already offer their workers a generous slate of paid holidays and don’t wish to add another because of the cost involved. That means exchanging another paid day off in return for adding King’s birthday, but the officials say they haven’t been able to negotiate an agreement with municipal employees.
“We’ve offered to change a day,” Kenmore Mayor Patrick Mang said. “We’re not about to say we’re going to give another day off.”
But other governments at the state, county and local level have found a way to make this work for their employees.
Outside observers wonder why it isn’t more of a priority for some governments and the unions that represent their workers to honor King and, pointedly, to reject racism.
“It’s a battle over symbolic messages,” said Henry Louis Taylor Jr., a University at Buffalo professor who studies race and class issues and urban affairs. “The holiday is a symbol and a message that is connected to it. Resistance to that holiday is opposition to that message and everything that it is about.”
The effort to make King’s birthday a national holiday began days after the iconic African American civil rights leader was assassinated in 1968, according to an account from the History channel.
But it took years for the campaign to honor King to gain enough support from the public – and within Congress. King was vilified during his lifetime and not everyone welcomed his dream of social and economic justice for all, Taylor said.
It wasn’t until 1983 that Reagan signed the bill making King’s birthday a federal holiday. It was first celebrated at the federal level in 1986 but states – particularly in the South – lagged in recognizing the day themselves. South Carolina finally became the 50th state to do so in 2000.
Still, the holiday isn’t in effect throughout this area. Some private sector employers do give their workers the day off, others don’t.
On the public sector side, school districts almost universally give students, teachers and employees the holiday. And the majority of governments, from New York State to Erie and Niagara counties and down, recognize the holiday.
The Buffalo News contacted the 14 largest municipalities in Erie County, as well as Niagara Falls, and all mark the holiday except for the Town of Tonawanda.
However, it depends on the bargaining unit for the towns of Lancaster and West Seneca. For example, in West Seneca, white-collar employees and police receive the day as a holiday but blue-collar workers do not, according to Supervisor Gary Dickson, who took office this month.
Dickson said he’s open to expanding the holiday to all workers. “I’d have to figure out why it is the way it is,” he said.
This isn’t a new issue. The News in 2002 found a number of municipalities that let the holiday pass unobserved. Then, as now, the cities of Lockport and North Tonawanda and the villages of Kenmore and Blasdell did not mark the holiday. Presumably there are others.
In previous and recent interviews, officials from those communities strike a consistent theme: They are more than willing to recognize the holiday, but they don’t want to simply give their employees another holiday without exchanging it for another.
“If we declared another holiday, it’s another day off for them and it increases our budget,” Kenmore’s Mang said.
Blasdell employees, for example, now receive 13 paid holidays, plus a half day off for village elections. This includes New Year’s Eve, Thanksgiving Friday and the last working day before Christmas.
Village Administrator Janet Plarr handles negotiations with the union that represents Blasdell’s four full-time employees, who handle leaf and snow removal in the village’s Public Works Department and who earned Plarr’s praise for their dedication.
Every round of negotiations, Plarr said, she asks the workers if they are willing to swap another holiday for King’s birthday. And each time, the answer is no, she said.
The Friday after Thanksgiving is one possibility but, Plarr said, the workers rebuff that idea because they want the day off during deer hunting season.
“I think it’s very difficult to change the mindset of a union. Once they’ve had something, they don’t want to give it up,” she said.
It’s expensive to give workers a paid day off, and to pay a higher rate to those employees who do have to work on a holiday, said Norm Stocker, who negotiated labor deals on behalf of the Town of Tonawanda for several decades.
“When you’re in negotiations, everything comes down to cost,” Stocker said.
In the Town of Tonawanda, employees get 12 holidays, including their own birthday and a floating holiday to use whenever they wish, and two more half-day holidays.
Supervisor Joseph Emminger said town employees also receive vacation time, sick time and personal leave. Emminger said the town has repeatedly offered during contract negotiations to swap holidays but employee union leaders have rejected their offers.
“We have done everything in our power to make it a holiday,” Emminger said.
Ed Allen is president of Tonawanda’s Salaried Workers Association, which represents 146 town employees. The union has been without a contract since 2011. He said members rejected a proposal from the town that would have swapped the floating holiday for King’s birthday because of other undesirable provisions in the deal.
The union’s highest priority now is getting a new deal with adequate raises, Allen said, but he believes members are open to the holiday swap.
“Absolutely it’d be something we consider,” he said.
Still, many communities have found a way to make this work, including Cheektowaga in the early 2000s.
Stocker, Mang and North Tonawanda Mayor Art Pappas all said there hasn’t been a push from the public or anyone else in those communities to recognize King’s birthday.
“This is the first it’s ever been brought up to me,” Pappas said.
Government workers and elected officials in those communities are predominantly white. It’s possible honoring King would be a higher priority if a more diverse group of people made these decisions.
Officials say they want to mark the holiday if they can strike a deal with their employees. And while they all deny ill intent, some do regret the message staying open for business on King’s birthday can send.
“I think the more important thing is to recognize all the contributions that Martin Luther King made to our nation and to civil rights,” Blasdell’s Plarr said.
Taylor, for his part, dismisses what he considers excuse-making from town, village and city officials. If they were motivated enough they would have found a way to make this work years ago, he said, referring to the lagging communities as “pockets of resistance.”
Recognizing King – as with marking any holiday – is a show of support for the ideals behind that holiday, Taylor said. Declining to honor King’s day, he said, makes a statement that those governments don’t support King and his legacy.
“It’s not the holiday,” Taylor said. “It’s the dream, it’s the vision, it’s the aspiration this holiday represents that you are opposed to.”
Re-Post from the Buffalo News