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A Message to Labor from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 19, 2015 by

Today is an important day to many of us in the labor movement who, like Dr. King, see labor rights, democratic participation and shared prosperity as civil rights to which all are entitled.  In the early days of 2015, it appears two of three branches of the federal government are decidedly against our mission, and if provided an opportunity will roll back these rights grudgingly won over the arch of the last century.

We also see signs that warrant optimism.  Labor’s renewed engagement with the unrepresented, an unexpected vigor among workers who are standing up and coalescing around such modest demands as an increase to the minimum wage or paid sick days, and Labor’s experimentation with new forms of organizing and community engagement.

Let’s take a moment to consider Dr. King’s recommendation that Labor will “come out of its apathy only if it fights for a genuine program for social advancement,” stated in his 1965 address to UAW District Council 65.  He continued:

“Labor and the civil rights movement, the unemployed, the aged, and elements of the church world can unite for a dynamic crusade for a two dollar minimum wage covering all who work, not merely some. A public works program that will level the ghettos, create fine housing for the millions now living in fifty- and sixty- year old tenements, build new schools, hospitals, recreation areas, will do more to abolish poverty than tax cuts that ultimately benefit the middle class and rich.”

These words resonate and implore us today, suggesting this struggle will be a continuing one.  We should consider Dr. King’s prescription, as he continued:

“The labor movement, if it is to remain vital, needs to raise the standard of living of all workers, not merely those under its contracts.  As the relative number of workers in unions drops, the strength of labor will fall if it does not become a social force pressing for greater dimensions of wealth for all those who labor.  If the labor movement plays this role now, as it did thirty years ago, it will attract every element in the nation that seeks a fuller life.”

We are at long last heading Dr. King’s message, perhaps late, but not too late.

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