King’s More Perfect Unions

On Thursday night, just before this MLK holiday weekend, I spoke before a charter school board of directors whose teachers had voted two-to-one to be represented by the American Federation of Teachers. Instead of recognizing the teachers and negotiating a contract, the school had fired the lead teacher who helped organize the union and appealed to determine whether the school was covered by Illinois education labor laws. I began my short presentation by quoting from Dr. King’s speech to the United Packinghouse Workers of America in 1957, in which he declared: 

I still believe that organized labor can be one of the most powerful instruments to do away with this evil that confronts our nation that we refer to as segregation and discrimination. It is certainly true that the forces that are anti-Negro are by and large anti-labor, and with the coming together of the powerful influence of labor and all people of goodwill in the struggle for freedom and human dignity, I can assure you that we have a powerful instrument. 

I then quoted from another King speech, given at the AFL-CIO’s Fourth Constitutional Convention in 1961, in which he says: 

History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation, but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for 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. 

In this moment of unrestrained union-bashing, we need to remember that those who are anti-labor are nearly always anti-immigrant. They are anti-poor people. They are anti the causes of freedom and democracy. The anti-union forces and the anti-union rhetoric that we are hearing in all the state budget fights are dangerous. As Dr. King said, “The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation, but enlarged it.” 

I was able to quote from these two great speeches thanks to All Labor Has Dignity, a new collection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches to labor audiences edited by Michael K. Honey, a former organizer turned historian, whose 2007 book Going Down Jericho Road chronicled King’s final campaign: the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in 1968.

As the director of Interfaith Worker Justice, I was familiar with Dr. King’s support for labor. I’d read his final speech in Memphis supporting the sanitation workers (of course), but I hadn’t read any of the other speeches, many of which are invaluable as they illustrate his deep understanding of the connections between racism, economic injustice, and war. “The forces that are anti-Negro are by and large anti-labor.” These interconnections remain with us. 

While the speeches do show his respect for the labor movement, they also reveal some of his frustrations with it. In some he thanks union audiences for their support and activism, while in others he pushes for more involvement in the civil rights movement and for them to address their own internal racism. He models how to respectfully challenge allies to do more. 

The speeches reflect his knowledge of history and social movements, frequently recognizing the great strides made by labor for working men and women. Needless to say, they offer models for anyone interested in preaching as even the weakest among them are better than most sermons preached on Sunday mornings.

A good preacher speaks “in context”—in light of the demographics, the timing, and the group’s experience—and Michael Honey not only contextualizes Dr. King’s history with labor unions in his solid introduction, but he provides an introduction to each speech, which was often as interesting as the speech itself.

On this MLK weekend, as the anti-labor forces are attacking public sector workers in state after state, All Labor Has Dignity arrives to equip labor leaders for the fights ahead. For those who want to join the struggle to support public sector workers and condemn the shameless blaming of workers for our economic woes, bolster yourself by reading this book. Then join the fight.

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