What can I say about one of the greatest teachers of our time? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not only our country’s greatest civil rights activist, he taught us in the labor movement that we are all connected, that workers’ rights are human rights.
No matter our race, or religion – all the millions of working families in our country are looking for the same thing. It used to be called “The American Dream”. We all want to have enough money to live in a decent home, enough that we don’t have to worry about paying for food or paying the heat bill. We want to raise our children in safe neighborhoods with decent schools. We want to have time outside of work, to spend with our children and get involved in our communities. We want to live a full life and then be able to retire with dignity.
But in recent decades, the workers of this country have not been able to rise up and reach for that Dream. Instead, we have been pushed down: through stagnant wages, and increased productivity. Through outsourcing and layoffs. Under-employment and unemployment. Through the mantra that “you’re lucky to even have a job.” Steelworker, waitress, adjunct professor, custodian: we all share that same American Dream. We are more alike than different. This is the one thing that unions and union members have understood for hundreds of years.
Back in the 1960s, when unions represented more than 50% of the workforce, things were much different. Wages were not excessive, but they were fair. Families could have one parent at home and still afford that nice new GM car, and the house with the white picket fence.
But since then, unions have been under constant attack. They push legislation like Right To Work (for less). They pit private-sector worker against public-sector employee. They tell us they can’t “afford” pay raises, they can’t “afford” to maintain our benefits, even when their profits are breaking records. They hack away at our collective bargaining rights until they can make those rights meaningless.
Dr King was way ahead of his time when he said:
“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone…Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.” —Martin Luther King, speaking about right-to-work laws in 1961
Now, more than fifty years later, we are still fighting against Right To Work laws. Community activists are still working with the labor movement to protect collective bargaining rights.
And we in the labor community are still fighting for equal rights for all. Our unions are standing up for the rights of all workers: gay, lesbian, straight, black, white, or brown. None of those things should ever hold us back. None of those things should ever keep any one of us from reaching our own version of the American Dream.
It is an eternal truth: we are all connected. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me (Matthew 25:40).”
We must stand together, if we are to stand at all.