On Monday, January 21, Americans will celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day: a federal holiday that honours the civil rights leader’s legacy. Dr. King is most remembered for his fearless and tireless work advocating for racial equality – and rightly so. But Dr. King was passionate about economic justice; it’s for this reason that he chose to work so closely with the labour movement.
In the years following the American Civil War, black Americans were hardly free: racial segregation was codified into law and supported by the state. Schools, water fountains, lunch counters, trains, buses – every part of American life was segregated. As Dr. King himself explained, “segregation is nothing but slavery covered up with certain niceties of complexity”.
Unfortunately, the American labour movement of the early 20th century suffered the same ills:
“Black and white workers shared a heightened interest in trade union organization, but because trade unions organized by white workers generally excluded blacks, black workers began to organize on their own.”
In fact, unions often allowed discriminatory practices to be codified into their very contracts. In the wake of the Cold War, many unions preoccupied themselves with purging alleged communists from their ranks rather than tackling the issue of racism.
“The Red Scare’s big squeeze against labor radicalism eliminated some of the most persistent and militant voices for interracial working-class mobilization. It also helped to block unions from expanding into difficult-to-organize areas of low-wage employment, where workers of color and women predominated.”
There were, however, more progressive unions in the mix. The United Packinghouse Workers of America, for example, was a strong ally of the civil rights movement. The UPWA had its own national Anti-Discrimination Department, which was “regarded as one of the most outspoken and active groups fighting segregation”. In March of 1955, its union leaders boldly committed to raising $10 million (equivalent to USD$93 million in 2018) to end segregation; the money would be used to finance the defense of those who would defy segregation laws and carry the cases to higher courts.
“Break the law and sit where you please,” said one delegate to his black union brothers and sisters. Less than a year later, Rosa Parks would be arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery Alabama bus, prompting the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
It was with progressive unions like the UPWA that Dr. King first forged alliances; these were unions that strongly supported civil rights and that worked to organize black and Hispanic workers.
Dr. King recognized that an alliance between the labour movement and the civil rights movement could push the country forward. As he advocated for desegregation and equal rights in the public sphere, Dr. King was also pushing unions to desegregate and put black and Hispanic activists into leadership positions.
By the 1960s, a symbiotic relationship had formed. Unions were frequently providing financial support and mobilizing members for the civil rights movement. Conversely, Dr. King supported striking workers, spoke out about anti-union laws and often spoke at union meetings and conventions.
In 1961, Dr. King was invited to address convention delegates of the AFL-CIO – the largest federation of unions in the United States. In his speech, Dr. King declared labour and the black community shared a kinship:
“Negroes in the United States read this history of the labour movement and find it mirrors their own experience. We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the goodwill and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us. They deplore our discontent, they resent our will to organize, so that we may guarantee that humanity will prevail and equality will be exacted.”
While the speech largely praised the labour movement and was well received by delegates, Dr. King also took the opportunity to tackle the issue of discrimination within the federation. He decried that certain unions barred black members from their ranks and prevented them from accessing apprenticeships and vocational education.
Just as a family member expects better from his relatives than from his neighbours, so too, King said, the black community expected better from the labour movement.
Two years later, Dr. King would address the nation during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Roughly 250,000 people would take part in the march in which Dr. King would deliver his famous “I have a dream” speech. Labour unions did their part to support the endeavour:
“On the podium and throughout the vast audience, one can see these union members, women and men, with picket signs, buttons and hats demanding ‘Fair Employment, Full Employment’ and ‘Jobs and Freedom.’ These messages of solidarity were produced in the thousands by unions that also subsidized the public-address system and chartered buses and planes that brought tens of thousands of trade unionists to the March on Washington”
The March helped to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was endorsed and supported by many unions.
In his last years, Dr. King turned his attention to economic justice and lifting the black community out of poverty. The labour movement, which according to Dr. King was “the first and pioneer anti-poverty program,” had a role to play there too.
“King clearly understood the power of unionizing the South. He saw it as a way to elevate and enfranchise African Americans and workers, and to vote more labor-friendly and less racist people into power.”
His commitment to working people’s right to organize and demand living wages was ultimately what brought him to Memphis, Tennessee, where his life would be cut short. There, a group of 1,300 black sanitation workers had gone on strike after two garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, had been crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck compactor.
The workers were demanding that the city of Memphis recognize their union, end discriminatory practices, pay them a living wage as well as overtime, and implement better safety standards. Most men earned only 65 cents per hour ($4.91 an hour in current US dollars).
In an attempt to have the city recognize their inherent human dignity, sanitation workers carried signs that said: “I am a Man”.
“You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages,” Dr. King told sanitation workers.
A few days later, Dr. King was assassinated on a Memphis hotel balcony. In the days that followed, President Lyndon B. Johnson would order his undersecretary of labour to assist in the negotiations. One week after Dr. King’s funeral, an agreement was finally reached; members voted in favour of the agreement and the strike came to an end.
Dr. King’s pivotal role in the gobal civil rights movement cannot be understated. And because his work and his words moved the United States in such a profound manner, his commitment to economic justice and the labour movement are often overshadowed. As unions, we must continue to work towards Dr. King’s vision – continue to establish these crucial alliances – so that we can truly build a working-class movement that advances social and economic justice.