Dr. King and Labor

AFSCME President Jerry Wurf (right) speaks to Martin Luther King, Jr. at a rally for the striking sanitation workers of Memphis Local 1733. AFSCME organizer P.J. Ciampa stands behind them. 1968
Wurf and King in Memphis

AFSCME President Jerry Wurf (right) speaks to Martin Luther King, Jr. at a rally for the striking sanitation workers of Memphis Local 1733. AFSCME organizer P.J. Ciampa stands behind them.


“All work has dignity and importance,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said. At the midpoint of the civil rights movement he cautioned, “We must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.”

Dr. King’s views on right-to-work laws still ring true: they are anti-union, anti-worker, anti-woman and anti-family.

“Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone,” said King. “Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We demand this fraud be stopped.”

Martin Luther King Jr., had he lived, would have turned 87 on Jan. 15. He spent his life fighting for dignity and equality. He aligned himself with progressive labor unions, including AFSCME, to overturn America’s deeply entrenched systems of racial apartheid and gender discrimination.

King saw in unions the ability to lift all workers by working to negotiate better wages. History has borne out Dr. King’s words: “The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously …lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.”

King said America could eradicate the scourge of poverty afflicting far too many of its citizens and that democracy and unions would be the means by which to do it. In the decades that followed the civil rights movement, labor unions did much to improve job opportunities and wages and assuage longstanding inequalities that hurt minorities and women.

“The labor movement was the principle force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress,” King said. “Its bold struggles for economic and social reform gave birth… to new wages levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industries did not lead this transformation; they resisted until they were overcome.”

Today’s captains of industry, particularly conservative one-percenters like the Koch Brothers, comprise an oligarchy who scheme hostile attacks on unions and finance legal actions to eliminate collective bargaining.

The Friedrichs v. California Teachers case is one such challenge. Previously its backers challenged President Obama’s Affordable Care Act—and lost. They helped corporations win equal footing as people—though they are not.

Their goal is to silence workers’ voices, weaken unions, and make it easier to reverse longstanding gains and the programs and policies that help working families.

A stable and growing American middle class has proven to be one of the best assurances for a strong and vibrant democracy. And unions helped make that happen. Even President Ronald Reagan credited Polish labor unions for their role in toppling communism in 1980 when he said, “Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.”

American principles of free speech and the right to assemble fully support labor unions’ vital work.

Right-to-work laws don’t. Friedrichs would have employees who opt out of the union reap the benefits without paying union fees. But shouldn’t everyone who pockets union-negotiated raises, overtime pay, job security and pension benefits, share the costs of providing such benefits?

Reflecting on Dr. King’s dream of a free society and his legacy of union pride and dignity for all workers leaves no room for right-to-work laws.

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