RWDSU news from across North America
Monday, January 16, 2017,
Every year at this time, people across the United States celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s many contributions to our country, and how he has shaped our history.
We lift up King the civil rights leader, King the moral crusader, King the brilliant orator, King the brave marcher, King the fearless activist. The list goes on.
All of those tributes are, of course, important to offer, and they should happen every day, not just once a year, given the man’s extraordinary accomplishments.
Yet at a time of extreme division and polarization, and when so many working people are struggling to survive, it’s worth remembering that King was also a labor leader — a charismatic champion of unionization as a force for economic justice.
Throughout his life, King spent countless hours on shop floors and in the streets with workers who were fighting and striking for dignity and respect on the job.
It’s often forgotten that King was a consistent and fervent defender of organized labor who understood how union rights help workers across industries and occupations.
He understood the struggles of workers of color, immigrant workers, white workers, women and others trapped in an economy that fails them and only seems to reward those at the top.
In a March 1968 speech, one of his last, King described the working poor in words that could just as easily describe the plight of many Americans today:
“Most of the poor people in our country are working every day, but they’re making wages so inadequate that they cannot even begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of the nation,” he said.
Were he still alive, King would undoubtedly talk about how and why American workers are concerned about the future, especially those harmed by globalization and a political order that rewards greed and caters to the wealthy elite.
He understood deeply the struggles of the marginalized and the mistreated throughout our economy and society.
But he would admonish us not to succumb to pessimism or despair.
He was a pragmatic optimist about the future, because he knew what unions achieved and what working people overcame in the face of massive obstacles.
“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress,” King once emphatically noted. “Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life,” he observed.
Today he would urge us to expand the labor movement as part of a broader progressive movement that empowers and elevates all working people.
King’s vision was that larger coalitions of Americans can and must be built to advance the common needs of working people and expand union membership.
“Union meant strength, and recognition meant the employer’s acknowledgment of that strength, and the two meant the opportunity to fight again for further gains with united and multiplied power,” King declared in 1967.
King wanted Americans to harness the “combined strength” of the labor movement and civil rights movement.
“We have not used a fraction of it for our own good or for the needs of society as a whole . . . if we seek higher standards for all workers for an enriched life, we have the ability to accomplish it, and our nation has the ability to provide it,” he noted in one of his addresses to a union audience.
His point was this: As a nation of working people who share similar struggles on the job but come from different backgrounds — backgrounds that often appear to divide us — we cannot speak past each other.
Instead, we must learn and develop new ways to talk to each other, organize together, mobilize our communities and advance our shared interests.
This is King’s unfinished legacy — one to embrace and defend in his honor.