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A Most Reliable Ally

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Unions

Elly Leary (ellyleary [at] earthlink.net), a retired autoworker and clerical worker, was vice president and bargaining chair for her United Auto Workers local union. She has also worked with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Miami Workers Center, and POWER U, all lower-sector community organizations in South Florida.

Martin Luther King, Jr., edited with introductions by Michael K. Honey, All Labor Has Dignity (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011), 240 pages, $17.00, paperback.

Many Americans who have failed to look deeply into the career of Martin Luther King, Jr. hold false assumptions about him. One is that he was a moderate solely focused on achieving civil rights for American Negroes (his terminology), and that he had a dream about a country where, as he said in August 1963, “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Another is that he held to this vision of working within the system and building interracial harmony—“let us not drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred”—until the spring of 1967, when for some inexplicable reason the train flew off the tracks. In his (in)famous Riverside Church speech on April 4, 1967, King came out forcefully against the war in Vietnam, defended the National Liberation Front as a voice for people seeking independence from forces like the United States (whose leaders he accused of saying one thing and doing another), and called for a “radical revolution in values” that put poverty and people ahead of “things.” By the time the sanitation workers struck in Memphis one year later, King seemed to have gotten back on track with a more or less traditional labor support role, albeit a critical one, as the spiritual motivator of the strikers.

All Labor Has Dignity is a small treasure of fifteen labor speeches, twelve which were heretofore unpublished until unearthed by long-time King scholar Michael Honey. It puts an end to all the nonsense about King’s views. From his earliest beginnings as a minister (1957), King was consistently trying to connect economic, racial, and political/civil equality. To be clear, King’s discussion of this interconnection was never Marxist in orientation. Neither the term “class war” nor even the word “class” was ever used. He said, “I don’t think the answer is in Communism,” which was something he equated with both “the denial of human freedom and totalitarianism.” But, that said, King was not an anti-communist either. He usually avoided the redbaiting trap and often knowingly worked with reds. King was always moving toward building a heaven on earth. His vision is a place of no want, no disharmony, no violence, no slavery, no white supremacy, no injustice, and no inequality. This vision is not antagonistic to the communist vision of a classless and stateless society where each person lives according to his or her needs.

Reading these speeches, it is striking how consistent King was throughout his eleven politically-active years. He always stayed on message, even using the same phrasing. For example, “I have a dream” was not newly minted for the dramatic March on Washington in August 1963; he had used this conceit a year earlier while addressing the District 65 union, and again in June 1963 in Detroit. As the years marched by, King would add some nuance and a few more points, inserting new arguments and information as conditions changed.

King loved to draw parallels between the labor and civil rights movements. In an address to the National Maritime Union in 1962, he pointed out that both Negroes and seamen “were brought frequently to their job in chains.” In 1961, he reminded delegates to the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union convention that both sets of fighters stood up for their rights by sitting down. In union speech after union speech—whether to the warehouse and retail workers of District 65, delegates to the Illinois AFL-CIO, hospital workers in 1199, packinghouse workers, or sanitation workers—King always stated the obvious: fighters for justice in any of its forms 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. Concessions, whether wage gains, the weekend, the eight-hour day, voting rights, or non-segregated hotels and restaurants, will only be made begrudgingly. What they are forced “to give to us with one hand, [they will] snatch back with the other hand.” King said that even the “so-called white backlash” should not deter from the struggle.

In his address to the December 1961 AFL-CIO convention, King told delegates, “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: 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.” He repeated this assertion, almost word for word, many times while addressing the UAW, United Packing House Workers, and Illinois AFL-CIO. He emphasized that labor and the black freedom movement must stand side-by-side. It was a win-win relationship. “Together we can be architects of democracy in the South, now rapidly industrializing. Together we can retool the political structure of the South, sending to congress steadfast liberals joining with those from the northern industrial states.” He held that black voters will elect liberals or “labor candidates,” saying that “When Negroes in the South receive the franchise, they will use it not only for their own progress, but for all.”

King was painfully aware of the pernicious effects of automation on semi-skilled labor of every sort (and their unions), which were precisely the jobs held by the black working class. Automation “will grind jobs into dust as it grinds out unbelievable volumes of production.” Lost jobs (much of them representing permanent unemployment), lost purchasing power, undermined labor standards, immense downward pressure on wages, and ghost towns would follow. Although he never mentioned it in any of these collected speeches, King must have been aware that mechanization of “white gold” (cotton) was a disaster for the black working class in the south. None of the money Congress allotted to ease the transition went to the workers. “As machines replace men, we must again question whether the depth of our social thinking matches the growth of technological creativity. Its solution will require forthright creative social planning from the shop floor to the highest levels of government.” He said, “We have so energetically mastered production that now we must give attention to distribution.” King challenged the union movement to move beyond the four walls of the house of labor and use its clout to make general class demands—guaranteed annual wage, adequate minimum wage, and first-rate education. Labor’s allies in the black freedom movement were ready, but King warned that if labor did not step up to the plate, it would see its influence continue to dwindle.

As a longstanding and consistent ally of labor, King challenged labor to face internal contradictions and weaknesses. “Because the whole of our society is pulsing with racism” and because “the unresolved race question is a pathological infection in our social and political anatomy,” King focused on what W.E.B. Du Bois famously stated was the central problem of the twentieth century—the color line. King took a dual approach: applaud and uplift positive examples, but forthrightly challenge inadequacies and failures. It is not surprising that King’s closest union relationships were with the United Packinghouse Workers, District 65, and 1199. These unions, predominantly based in the north, had active anti-discrimination programs and black leadership. Even so, he never let them off the hook. In September 1965, he told District 65 members that “A missing ingredient in the civil rights struggle as a whole has been the power of the labor movement. If District 65 could give the kind of support to the southern and northern struggle that it has given so consistently through the years then the unions with ten and twenty times your membership should be able to follow suit.” Most unions, in fact, did very little to fight racism, despite having moved heaven and earth to purge scores of reds and “red unions.” In December 1961, against the backdrop of the official censure of A. Philip Randolph (who had made the same point), King chastised the AFL-CIO annual convention: “A man who has dedicated his long and faultless life to the labor movement cannot be raising questions harmful to it.”

Of all the speeches in this book, the one delivered to some New York City Teamsters in May 1967 was the most pivotal. It is a searing condemnation of a quiescent labor movement in the face of persistent and systemic white supremacy. As Honey’s short introduction to this speech reminds us, King was still reeling from a summer campaign up north (Cairo, Illinois) that was as hateful and nasty as any experience in the south. The black power movement was on the ascendancy, denouncing King’s vision of integration and nonviolence. One month earlier, he had delivered his anti-war Riverside speech. Although legislation had passed Congress to give black voting rights and equal accommodation, blacks were not any better off. Unemployment and poverty were rising, and discrimination remained rampant. King’s speeches, like all good sermons, are distinguished by both sending a message and uplift (“I have a Dream,” “I’ve been to the mountain top”). However, this speech to the Teamsters has not one shred of uplift. It is pure “come to Jesus,” lay it on the line, without any sugar coating. It is also a masterpiece of sound-bites and analysis.

The speech starts with King laying out the accomplishments of the civil rights movement: a “profound shaking of the entire edifice of segregation,” voter registration, national legislation, and visibility. But since that did not bring equality, King knew the struggle must press harder and “raise the question of poverty as a responsibility of government and place a new challenge before society.” King was challenging his allies, especially white labor, to stand with him in this move. There was sure to be resistance as white America was forced to confront what Lillian Smith aptly has described as “the drug of white supremacy.” King was brutally honest about how difficult this would be:

It will not be easy to accomplish this program because white America has had cheap victories up to this point. The limited reforms we won have been obtained at bargain rates for the power structure. There are no expenses involved, no taxes required for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels, and other facilities. For even the more substantial reform, such as voting rights required neither large monetary or psychological sacrifice. To put it in plain language, many Americans would like to have a nation which is a democracy for white Americans but simultaneously a dictatorship over black Americans.

Just seven months later, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched the Poor People’s Campaign. Conceived of as a multiracial, multi-pronged campaign for wealth redistribution, a guaranteed annual income, a right to housing, health care, and decent education, the Campaign was challenging the very power structure of the U.S. political economy, including its bedrock: white supremacy. A major event in this campaign was to be a large march on Washington, with feeder marches from all over the country, to present Congress with an “Economic Bill of Rights,” enshrining his wealth redistribution and equity plan. King’s vision, and himself as well, had been transformed from a seat at the table to a systemic challenge. Every speech, including those famous ones to striking sanitation workers (two of which are included in the book), must be seen in that context. He had become exactly the threat Hoover and the white supremacists had feared.

Rest in peace, comrade. We will do our best to fulfill the dream.

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