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MLK Wanted Workers to be in Unions


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a tireless fighter on the behalf of the American worker, because he realized that "The labor movement was the principle force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress."

The holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is often spent admiring his fight for civil liberties with a focus on his struggle for voting rights. This focus makes sense. It was a time when many people of color, particularly in the South, suffered under Jim Crow laws that made it disproportionately difficult for them to vote.

In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was made into law, overturning Jim Crow. At least in this particular struggle, Dr. King had succeeded.

But there is more to Dr. King’s legacy that we can and should celebrate, fights he engaged in that continue today. Most notably, he was an unmitigated champion of unions. This position was part and parcel of his Poor People’s Campaign, which sought to uplift the living standard of working people of all creeds, colors, and religions.


King attended the AFL-CIO’s annual convention, helping to bridge civil rights for African Americans with the labor movement, where he said, “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.”


Dr. King was jailed for civil disobedience in Birmingham, Alabama. While held there, he wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. It was the leader of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, Walter Reuther, who bailed out Dr. King. Reuther and the UAW became staunch King allies. Reuther helped organize and finance the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, where he also was a speaker, delivering remarks from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial shortly before King gave his historic "I Have a Dream" speech.

"The labor movement was the principle force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress."

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Dr. King addressed the AFL-CIO. He said, “The two most dynamic movements that reshaped the nation during the past three decades are the labor and civil rights movements. Our combined strength is potentially enormous.”


Dr. King was in Memphis to support a garbage workers strike. Workers carried signs that said “I Am A Man,” to protest unsafe conditions, abusive white supervisors, and low wages.

Such offenses as these occur to this day, particularly in New York’s non-union construction industry, where contractor bosses are empowered to exploit vulnerable workers desperate to earn any living at all so they can take care of their families. In this particular struggle, Dr. King had not yet succeeded. It was in Memphis, as he prepared to address the striking garbage workers, that Dr. King was assassinated.

The current president of the Public Employees Federation, Wayne Spence, eloquently summed up Dr. King’s importance to the American labor movement.

“Dr. Martin Luther King’s core values – equality and justice for all – are still what govern the labor movement to this day,” Spence said. “We are always fighting for equal treatment in accordance with our collective bargaining agreements. We fight every day for justice on behalf of the workers we represent, who have rights and protections in their contract that are all too often ignored by management.”

Spence said King knew there was strength in numbers. “The greater our collective voice, the more people in power will hear us and the greater impact we can have.”


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