Racial justice renaissance and union power rekindle the legacy of Martin Luther King


As unions experience a huge resurgence across America, it’s safe to say Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would be in our corner if only he were still alive today. He understood the direct connection between worker power activation and fundamental transformation of our nation.

Dr. King is still legendary for his oratory on race relations and famous for his unparalleled Civil Rights leadership. But it is a lesser-known fact that his epic story ended during a chapter in his life when he was championing union activism.

When Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in the early Spring of 1968, he’d been in the city for several weeks supporting sanitation workers who had been trying to organize a union for years. They were overwhelmingly Black – and they were pushed to the brink after two workers taking shelter from the rain were crushed to death in a trash compactor.

American workers come in all colors and Dr. King knew that fighting for labor rights was the right thing to do no matter what the laborer’s race. As he famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

But Dr. King also knew that – especially in 1960s America, where Jim Crow was still law and systemic racism was nowhere near to being dismantled – workers of color generally got the lower paying jobs with the least protections. Dr. King could see the intersection between the Civil Rights Movement and the Labor Rights Movement.

Sadly, while Dr. King could also see the Promised Land of brotherhood and harmony, he knew that he would get no further than the mountaintop due to the relentless viciousness of his enemies. Still, Dr. King had faith that, “We as a people will get to the Promised Land.”

His assassination happened 54 years ago and we’re still on the path to the Promised Land. But while road has been rocky at times, true believers have kept the torch of justice lit – and, today, racial justice activism and labor organizing have reignited to historic levels.

The year before last, we witnessed the biggest protests in American history via the Black Lives Matter movement. Over the past several years, we’ve experienced an American labor renaissance not seen in generations – including union organizing at retail giants like Amazon and Starbucks as well as strikes involving tens of thousands of teachers, film crew workers, hospital employees, factory workers, airport concession workers, transportation workers and more.

Many of these workers are fighting for union benefits and protections that we at SEIU 721 already enjoy – including the ability to even bargain for a strong contract at all. That’s why we will always fight to protect our union. Our activism is our way of honoring Dr. King’s memory. We will not rest until we get to the Promised Land and see his dream fulfilled.

Categories: Labor History
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Beverly Cooks

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