Decades after his death, nearly every American political movement would like to claim Martin Luther King Jr. as its own. The labor movement can do so with some credibility. Among members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Baptist minister is a kind of patron saint: He was martyred by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, where he had campaigned in support of a strike by black sanitation workers.
In fact, King had a long relationship with organized labor. He sought union support for civil rights campaigns, challenged labor to fight discrimination in its ranks, and came out time after time to defend striking union members.
Michael Honey, a professor of labor and ethnic studies and American history at University of Washington, Tacoma, has written three books on King’s relationship to labor and the cause of economic justice. The latest, published January 2011, is All Labor Has Dignity, an edited collection of King’s speeches about economic justice. The book got its start when Honey found half a dozen never-before-published “labor speeches” in a file at King Center in Atlanta.
King has for too long been pigeonholed as a civil rights leader, Honey says, when in truth the mature King might be better understood as a human rights leader. In a 1967 speech to the Teamsters, King described the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act as the first phase of the freedom struggle, in which blacks won what should have been theirs to begin with as American citizens.
“He never saw that as an end,” Honey said. “He saw it as a beginning.”
Reading All Labor Has Dignity, it’s clear that King’s agenda for economic justice remains unfinished.
The following excerpt is from King’s speech to the Fourth Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO, meeting in Miami Beach, Florida, Dec. 11, 1961.
Less than a century ago the laborer had no rights, little or no respect, and led a life which was socially submerged and barren. He was hired and fired by economic despots whose power over him decreed his life or death.…
Victor Hugo, literary genius of that day, commented bitterly that there was always more misery in the lower classes than there was humanity in the upper classes. The inspiring answer to this intolerable and dehumanizing existence was economic organization through trade unions. The worker became determined not to wait for charitable impulses to grow in his employer. He constructed the means by which a fairer sharing of the fruits of his toil had to be given to him or the wheels of industry, which he alone turned, would halt and wealth for no one would be available….
History is a great teacher.… By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for its industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.…
Negroes in the United States read this history of labor and find that 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. They are shocked that action organizations, sit-ins, civil disobedience, and protests are becoming our everyday tools, just as strikes, demonstrations, and union organization became yours to ensure that bargaining power genuinely existed on both sides of the table. We want to rely on the goodwill of those who would oppose us. Indeed, we have brought forward the method of nonviolence to give an example of unilateral goodwill in an effort to evoke it in those who have not yet felt it in their hearts. But we know that if we are not simultaneously organizing our strength, we will have no means to move forward. If we do not advance, the crushing burden of centuries of neglect and economic deprivation will destroy our will, our spirits, and our hopes. In this way, labor’s historic tradition of moving forward to create vital people as consumers and citizens has become our own tradition, and for the same reasons.
Unity of purpose [between the labor movement and the Negro civil rights movement] is not an historical coincidence. Negroes are almost entirely a working people. There are pitifully few Negro millionaires and few Negro employers. 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. …
Labor today faces a grave crisis, perhaps the most calamitous since it began its march from the shadows of want and insecurity. In the next 10 to 20 years, automation will grind jobs into dust as it grinds out unbelievable volumes of production. This period is made to order for those who seek to drive labor into impotency by viciously attacking it at every point of weakness. Hardcore unemployment is now an ugly and unavoidable fact of life. …
To find a great design to solve a great problem, labor will have to intervene in the political life of the nation to chart a course which distributes the abundance to all instead of concentrating it among a few.