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Reflections on the Reasons We Celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (Part 2)

In 2011 Washington University professor Michael Honey published a collection of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches to labor unions and workers’ rights coalitions, entitled All Labor Has Dignity. King’s words in these speeches leave no room for doubt about his commitment to organized labor. His message to union organizers and activists was visionary and poetic, but not naive: “fighters for justice,” he would tell them, “will be met with fierce resistance from the economic and political power structure and they must remain firm. They will be called reds, troublemakers, and accused of interfering with property rights…” He knew these revolutionary changes were risky, and that they could only be accomplished through collective action, because the power structure would use all its resources against both of them.

King believed that the struggle for civil rights and racial equality was deeply intertwined with the simultaneous struggle for labor rights. “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs,” he said, “…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.” In fact, King sometimes went further and suggested that civil rights victories would be hollow if not accompanied by economic actions designed to make good-paying jobs available to people. He understood that unionization was the most direct and effective way to generate those kinds of jobs. He also understood that the labor and anti-racism movements each had strong philosophical and pragmatic reasons to embrace each other’s causes as part of their own.

The union movement has been beaten down in recent decades, needless to say. But a society in which 1% of the people own more than 40% of the nation’s wealth, and most people see equality of opportunity as a utopian dream, seems destined for instability. And organized labor has indeed shown new signs of life recently. In fact it is quite easy to imagine Dr. King giving a speech today to the Service Employees International Union, to a packed house of fast food workers. Those in attendance would probably be mostly minorities and women–a fact that wouldn’t be lost on him–but perhaps he could have convinced another generation of us that it still makes sense to believe in, and fight for, the larger cause of economic justice. It is easy to imagine him savagely criticizing the forces that promote inequality and create a class of people who work hard but cannot afford necessities, arguing for progressive social programs.

King believed that, in a society as wealthy as this one, anyone willing to work should be able to earn enough to live with dignity. The only reason this doesn’t happen, when it doesn’t, is that the “power structure” actively opposes any policy that would empower workers, and any effort by workers to empower themselves. In one of his final speeches to the Memphis sanitation workers, King told the workers that labor “…is not menial until you’re not getting adequate wages-all jobs are important. The question is do you have dignity, and respect, and a decent livelihood, based on what you do?”

Before we get too self-satisfied about our achievements in the area of civil rights, then, or too happy about our historical connection with Martin Luther King, Jr., we should examine the inequality statistics, survey the current state of the labor union movement, and then hear the words of Michael Honey himself: “[Dr. King] would be aghast. And appalled (about our current political climate.) He had high hopes for the United States. He was really focusing on the promise of the American Revolution, and ‘all people are created equal,’ and the inherent rights we have…he’d be shocked and appalled at the backward direction of the thinking of so many people. How so many people fail to take in the lessons and experiences of history. We’re in a pretty sad time–a lot of the unions King fought for have been destroyed.”

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