A few weeks ago, I saw “Selma,” a remarkable movie about the unbreakable persistence and moral leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. in the struggle to secure voting rights for blacks in the South of Jim Crow.
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 Black History Month, it is my hope that Americans will remember another less-celebrated element of King’s 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 King’s view that civil rights and labor rights are inextricably intertwined. “Both movements are rooted in the idea that empowerment comes when many people speak with one voice, rallying as a community, taking collective action.
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. Here is King speaking to the Illinois AFL-CIO in 1965:
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“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. 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.”
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.
The catalyzing event was the gruesome death of two workers, crushed by a malfunctioning hydraulic ram in the back of a sanitation truck. The hard-working civil servants who picked up Memphis’ garbage were tired of being treated like garbage. They walked off the job and organized under the proud, defiant banner, powerful in its simplicity: “I Am a Man.”
Representatives from the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees came to town to help negotiate, but the recalcitrant mayor, Henry Loeb, refused to come to the table. Violence broke out in the streets when police turned tear gas and nightsticks on the protesting strikers.
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. He would return twice in the coming weeks. And on April 3, in his final speech, he seemed to foreshadow his own personal demise even as he imagined the ultimate triumph of the movement: “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
Less than 24 hours later, 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.
To ensure an economy based on shared prosperity, we must, identifying new and innovative ways to lift up worker’s voices.
And as we do that, we must continue to turn for inspiration to King.