"In our glorious fight for civil rights, 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. It is supported by Southern segregationists who are trying to keep us from achieving our civil rights and our right of equal job opportunity. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone…Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote." --Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 1961
These words were spoken more than a half century ago, but are just as profound and relevant today. In the past year, big corporations and their allies in government have waged war on workers across the country with one goal in mind: to weaken unions to the point of extinction.
The 112th Congress went into session promising prosperity and jobs, but spent the year carrying the water of corporate interests. Most notable was the assault on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB, an agency charged with protecting and promoting workers' fundamental rights, was attacked nearly 50 times in 2011. Legislation was offered to defund, delay, and destroy this agency. None of these attacks created a single job.
Those attacking workers and their unions seek to eliminate the rights and protections Dr. King inspired us all to keep fighting for. Before the labor movement gained strength in America, wages in our country were pitiful; working conditions were unbearable; a pension was unheard of. Industrial laborers were quite literally worked to death. It was a vicious cycle that made rising above the socioeconomic status you were born into extremely difficult. Then came collective bargaining and with it the 40 hour work week, paid holidays, fairness in promotions and the chance for a comfortable retirement. It was a tidal wave of dignity for all workers.
Proponents of anti-worker legislation would lead us to believe that a rising tide for workers hurts business. On the contrary: the growth of the middle class, largely spurred by unions, helped build the prosperous and strong nation we enjoy today. The labor movement turned lives filled with despair into lives filled with hope.
Pushing back against corporate interests is a weighty, but possible and crucial, task. Until the 1930s, the titans of industry had always succeeded in keeping labor down, but soon enough workers won out: unions were formed, and life was better for all. The tide is beginning to turn again today. Last fall in Ohio, Senate Bill 5, which stripped teachers, firefighters, and nurses of their collective bargaining rights, was repealed by an overwhelming majority of Ohio voters. Workers continue to fight for their rights in Wisconsin, Indiana, Washington D.C., and wherever else they are under attack.
We stand at an important moment in history. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in unions as a tool for economic justice. He stood shoulder to shoulder with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, understanding that their fight was his fight, just as labor rights are in fact civil rights. If he were alive today we know he would be standing steadfastly in solidarity with workers, helping them to fight back against those who would do them harm. The best way we can honor Dr. King’s memory is to keep fighting and ensure the voices of America’s workers never go silent.