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‘All labor has dignity’: King’s other legacy

Thomas E. Perez

A few weeks ago, I saw Selma, a remarkable movie about the unbreakable persistence and moral leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the struggle to secure voting rights for African-Americans in the Jim Crow south.

But what the movie didn’t reveal was the role played by the labor movement in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery and its part in propelling the civil rights movement forward at so many pivotal moments. As we mark Dr. King’s 86th birthday, it is my hope that Americans will remember another less-celebrated element of his dream – a belief in the importance of unions, labor rights and robust worker voice.

As the U.S. Secretary of Labor, and also the former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, my work is animated by Dr. King’s view that civil rights and labor rights are inextricably intertwined. “The duality of interests of labor and Negroes,” he told the AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention in 1961, “makes any crisis which lacerates you, a crisis from which we bleed.” Both movements are rooted in the idea that empowerment comes when many people speak with one voice, rallying as a community, taking collective action.

Going back to the Montgomery Bus Boycott nearly a decade earlier, the key strategist was a local leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters named E.D. Nixon. Labor leaders like Walter Reuther, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin were also the driving organizational force behind the 1963 March on Washington, a demonstration that was about economic justice as well as racial emancipation.

Union members, from the rank-and-file up to representatives of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, came to march in Selma. Among those locking arms on the Edmund Pettus Bridge was Reuther of the United Auto Workers. It was also Reuther who posted bail after Dr. King’s 1963 arrest in Birmingham. And the UAW provided the Detroit office space where King wrote his most iconic speech: “I Have a Dream”.

Civil rights activists and union activists shared not just common values and objectives, but also common enemies. The same mounted posse that bashed and brutalized marchers on Bloody Sunday, a harrowing scene vividly reenacted in Selma, was first assembled by Sheriff Jim Clark to harass union organizers at a local packing plant several years earlier.

Central to King’s philosophy was the idea that men and women of all races deserve the dignity of work, the right to earn more than poverty wages. And he knew that goal was not attainable without full-throated worker voice.

Dr. King’s last campaign was a labor struggle. Many people are aware that King was assassinated in Memphis in the spring of 1968. Less well-known is what drew him there: solidarity with city sanitation workers, who, without the benefit of union representation, were rising up to protest humiliating pay and deplorable working conditions.

Arriving in Memphis on March 18 and declaring that “all labor has dignity”, King spontaneously urged a general work stoppage — not just in sanitation, but workers of all kinds throughout the city.

On April 4, 1968 he was gunned down while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Within two weeks, the strike was settled. The city recognized the union and granted the sanitation workers a raise.

Nearly half a century later, workers’ struggle for fair pay, decent benefits and economic security remains one of the pressing challenges of our time. With a declining percentage of workers belonging to unions, wages have stagnated and the middle class has suffered. Around the country, reactionary forces continue to exert their considerable power to try to muzzle worker voice.

But time and again, we see Dr. King’s influence in mass mobilizations of people peacefully petitioning for their rights at work. We see it in the ongoing campaign by fast food workers to get the raise they deserve. We saw it in Madison, Wisconsin in 2011 — thousands descending on the state capitol to protest a state law stripping public employees of collective bargaining rights. To ensure an economy based on shared prosperity, we must grow these movements, identifying new and innovative ways to lift up worker voice.

And as we do, we must continue to turn for inspiration to Dr. King. The King holiday is a celebration of many things — his pursuit of racial justice, his commitment to non-violent resistance, his belief in service and doing for others. But you might also call it the other Labor Day.

Thomas E. Perez is the United States Secretary of Labor.