Have you noticed that some of organized labor’s proudest moments have come at those times in American history where Unions took the lead in a fight to improve our society?
Martin Luther King, Jr., the Nobel Prize winning advocate for civil right for African Americans and other historically disadvantaged citizens was gunned down in Memphis in 1968 a day after deliver his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. But how many Americans know that what brought Dr. King to Memphis was the melding of a Labor Union contract fight and the growing force of the civil rights movement? In a key moment in both Union and civil rights history, African American sanitation workers organized by the American Federations of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) were on strike for Union recognition and for dignity, united by the slogan “I Am a Man.”
While strikers were on the picket lines, community supporters pitched in with a boycott of downtown merchants led by the local NAACP and African-American ministers. Dr. King traveled to Memphis because he understood that the Union fight to improve wages and benefits was a part of the larger struggle to create a society where American of all races would be treated equally.
“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs – decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Speaking in support of Striking Sanitation Workers
Memphis, April 3, 1968
And there long has been recognition on the Union side, as well, that our fight for improved working conditions is connected to the social justice movement in the larger society. One of the few non-African-Americans invited to speak at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers union (UAW).
Unions Are Not a Spectator Sport
Unions are far more than a kind of employment insurance policy for the working people. True, one face of Unions is that they are an organization to which dues must be paid regularly, like insurance premiums are paid to insurance companies, and that these dues buy help in the event that something goes terribly wrong on the job.
But Unions are capable of accomplishing a lot more than that. Plenty of Union member and Union officials have learned the hard way that when workers come to think of their Unions as a business that provides a service rather than a group of people banding together to fight for common interests, the Union quickly loses the clout and credibility needed to defend and advance the members’ interests. When an employer looks and sees only a small handful of paid Union staff or elected Union leaders, and no one standing behind them, pretty soon the employer starts thinking that “The Union” isn’t really much to contend with. And the truth is, that’s right.
United we stand, divided we fall.
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