Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘MLK’

Martin Luther King Jr. Was a Union Man

Monday, January 21st, 2019

If Martin Luther King Jr. still lived, he’d probably tell people to join unions.

King understood racial equality was inextricably linked to economics. He asked, “What good does it do to be able to eat at a lunch counter if you can’t buy a hamburger?”

Those disadvantages have persisted. Today, for instance, the wealth of the average white family is more than 20 times that of a black one.

King’s solution was unionism.

Convergence of needs

In 1961, King spoke before the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest and most powerful labor organization, to explain why he felt unions were essential to civil rights progress.

“Negroes are almost entirely a working people,” he said. “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.”

My new book, “Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area,” chronicles King’s relationship with a labor union that was, perhaps, the most racially progressive in the country. That was Local 10 of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, or ILWU.

ILWU Local 10 represented workers who loaded and unloaded cargo from ships throughout San Francisco Bay’s waterfront. Its members’ commitment to racial equality may be as surprising as it is unknown.

In 1967, the year before his murder, King visited ILWU Local 10 to see what interracial unionism looked like. King met with these unionists at their hall in a then-thriving, portside neighborhood – now a gentrifiedtourist area best known for Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39.

While King knew about this union, ILWU history isn’t widely known off the waterfront.

Civil rights on the waterfront

Dockworkers had suffered for decades from a hiring system compared to a “slave auction.” Once hired, they routinely worked 24 to 36 hour shifts, experienced among the highest rates of injury and death of any job, and endured abusive bosses. And they did so for incredibly low wages.

In 1934, San Francisco longshoremen – who were non-union since employers had crushed their union in 1919 – reorganized and led a coast-wide “Big Strike.”

In the throes of the Great Depression, these increasingly militant and radicalized dockworkers walked off the job. After 83 days on strike, they won a huge victory: wage increases, a coast-wide contract and union-controlled hiring halls.

Soon, these “wharf rats,” among the region’s poorest and most exploited workers, became “lords of the docks,” commanding the highest wages and best conditions of any blue-collar worker in the region.

At its inception, Local 10’s membership was 99 percent white. But Harry Bridges, the union’s charismatic leader, joined with fellow union radicals to commit to racial equality in its ranks.

Originally from Australia, Bridges started working on the San Francisco waterfront in the early 1920s. It was during the Big Strike that he emerged as a leader.

Bridges coordinated during the strike with C.L. Dellums, the leading black unionist in the Bay Area, and made sure the handful of black dockworkers would not cross picket lines as replacement workers. Bridges promised they would get a fair deal in the new union. One of the union’s first moves after the strike was integrating work gangs that previously had been segregated.

Local 10 overcame pervasive discrimination

Cleophas Williams, a black man originally from Arkansas, was among those who got into Local 10 in 1944. He belonged to a wave of African-Americans who, due to the massive labor shortage caused by World War II, fled the racism and discriminatory laws of the Jim Crow South for better lives – and better jobs – outside of it. Hundreds of thousands of blacks moved to the Bay Area, and tens of thousands found jobs in the booming shipbuilding industry.

Black workers in shipbuilding experienced pervasive discrimination. Employers shunted them off into less attractive jobs and paid them less. Similarly, the main shipbuilders’ union proved hostile to black workers who, when allowed in, were placed in segregated locals.

A few thousand black men, including Williams, were hired as longshoremen during the war. He later recalled to historian Harvey Schwartz: “When I first came on the waterfront, many black workers felt that Local 10 was a utopia.”

During the war, when white foremen and military officers hurled racist epithets at black longshoremen, this union defended them. Black members received equal pay and were dispatched the same as all others.

For Williams, this union was a revelation. Literally the first white people he ever met who opposed white supremacy belonged to Local 10. These longshoremen were not simply anti-racists, they were communists and socialists.

Leftist unions like the ILWU embraced black workers because, reflecting their ideology, they contended workers were stronger when united. They also knew that, countless times, employers had broken strikes and destroyed unions by playing workers of different ethnicities, genders, nationalities and races against each other. For instance, when 350,000 workers went out during the mammoth Steel Strike of 1919, employers brought in tens of thousands of African-Americans to work as replacements.

Some black dockworkers also were socialists. Paul Robeson, the globally famous singer, actor and left-wing activist had several friends, fellow socialists, in Local 10. Robeson was made an honorary ILWU member during WWII.

Martin Luther King, union member

In 1967, King walked in Robeson’s footsteps when he was inducted into Local 10 as an honorary member, the same year Williams became the first black person elected president of Local 10. By that year, roughly half of its members were African-American.

King addressed these dockworkers, declaring, “I don’t feel like a stranger here in the midst of the ILWU. We have been strengthened and energized by the support you have given to our struggles. … We’ve learned from labor the meaning of power.”

Many years later, Williams discussed King’s speech with me: “He talked about the economics of discrimination. … What he said is what Bridges had been saying all along,” about workers benefiting by attacking racism and forming interracial unions.

Eight months later, in Memphis to organize a union, King was assassinated.

The day after his death, longshoremen shut down the ports of San Francisco and Oakland, as they still do when one of their own dies on the job. Nine ILWU members attended King’s funeral in Atlanta, including Bridges and Williams, honoring the man who called unions “the first anti-poverty program.”

This article appeared at In These Times on January 21, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and is currently at work on a book entitled Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a Research Associate in the Society, Work and Development Program (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has published extensively on labor history and politics. He tweets from @ProfPeterCole.

At MLK March, Renewed Call For Obama Executive Order on Wages

Saturday, August 24th, 2013

Bruce VailWASHINGTON, D.C.—On the eve of a march to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, labor and civil rights activists are calling on President Barack Obama to honor King with an executive order that would raise wages for as many as two million workers.

One of the most poignant calls came Wednesday from Alvin Turner, a veteran of the famous 1968 Memphis garbage workers strike. Recalling a recent face-to-face meeting with Obama, Turner said “he told me personally he was working hard for the little man. If he don’t sign, he’ll disappoint me badly.”

Turner and others are pressing for an executive order that would establish a “living wage” for workers whose employment is tied to federal government contracts, grants, loans, or property leases. Earlier this year, the labor-backed “Good Jobs Nation” campaign produced evidence that many fast food workers at government-owned buildings in Washington, D.C., are earning below poverty-level wages, and that the same problems extend to other workers whose jobs are tied to federal government action. A study earlier this year from the pro-labor group Demos estimated an executive order could raise the income of about two million low-wage workers nationwide.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are making the order a centerpiece of their pro-worker “Raise Up America” campaign launched in late June. The Change to Win federation—backed most notably by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters—is a partner in the Progressive Caucus campaign.

Such an order would not require a vote in Congress or any cooperation from the anti-labor Republicans, noted Mike Casca, a spokesperson for Ellison. The president has sole discretion on whether to issue such orders, and pressure is rising on Obama to do so from prgressive Democrats, labor unions, faith-based groups, and others, Casca said.

If Obama fails to sign the executive order, “the federal government is complicit in the perpetuation of poverty,” charged Bill Lucy, a retired executive of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, who joined Turner Wednesday for a public panel discussion of the issue. A similar executive order was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, he added, so “it’s not like it’s anything new.”

Radio talk-show host Joe Madison said marchers at the Aug. 24 events to honor the 50thanniversary of King’s speech will hear repeated calls from the speaking platform for an executive order. “We will do a disservice to those (original 1963) speakers—to Dr. King, to A. Philip Randolph—if we do not demand” presidential action on an executive order,” Madison said. Without a demand for action “it’s just a ceremony, and we don’t need any more ceremonies,” he said.

“King was at the intersection of the civil rights and labor movements,” commented Moshe Marvit, a lawyer, author and labor activists. King would have understood that “we need bold action from the president in the form of an executive order” to begin raising wages across broad sectors of the economy, Marvit said.

Change to Win spokesperson Paco Pabian told Working In These Times that there has been no unequivocal response from the White House yet on calls for the living wage executive order. There have been reports that Ellison asked Obama directly for such an order at a June 6 meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) had made a similar request, he said. In both cases, lawmakers were told that the matter would be reviewed by White House staff and that a definitive answer would be forthcoming sometime soon, Fabian said.

The push for the executive order gained an important backer on August 12, Fabian noted, when the New York Times published an editorial endorsing the idea.

“Many laws and executive actions from the 1930s to the 1960s, require fair pay for employees of federal contractors. Buth over time, those protections have been eroded by special-interest exemptions, complex contracting processes and lax enforcement. A new executive order could ensure that the awarding of contracts based on the quality of jobs created, challenging the notion that best contract is the one with the lowest labor costs,” the New York Times editors wrote.

Full disclosure: AFSCME is a web sponsor of In These Times.

This article originally appeared on In These Times on August 24, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Revive the Dream

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Post authored by AFSCME Secretary Treasurer Lee Saunders

On the eve of the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C., AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Lee Saunders writes why the nation needs to revive King’s dream.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans are expected to gather this weekend in Washington, D.C., for the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. Few can doubt that this is an extraordinary and historic moment. Only four other Americans—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt—have been given this honor: a national memorial on the hallowed grounds of our National Mall. As the first memorial to honor an African American, and the first to honor an individual who was never elected to high office, the memorial for Dr. King stands as a symbol of progress and purpose, dedicated to a man whose vision and courage transformed our nation and gave hope to the world.

The dedication this weekend also coincides with the 48th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was at that march where Dr. King delivered the speech that proclaimed his vision of an America that would live up to the words of our founders and the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.

“I have a dream,” he said, “it is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.” On that August day, Dr. King also challenged the economic injustices that existed in America. He spoke of Americans living “in a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” and of those who languish “in the corners of American society,” living as “an exile in his own land.”

Too many of those challenges remain in our society today. In the depths of the greatest economic disaster since the Great Depression, middle- and lower-income Americans have been hit hard. Unemployment among young, African American males, for example, is above 30 percent. As National Urban League President Marc Morial noted last month on “Meet the Press,” unemployment among blacks has actually worsened since the start of the recovery.

Dr. King was a champion of both civil rights and economic justice. They were both essential parts of his Dream for America. That is why he fought so strongly for the right of American workers to organize and bargain collectively. He was a longtime supporter of unions and understood the role of organized labor in creating the middle class and forging opportunity for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. As he said in a 1961 speech to the delegates at the AFL-CIO Convention: “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.”

AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, had an especially close bond with Dr. King. On three occasions in 1968, he traveled to Memphis to stand with the sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1733—thirteen hundred men who went on strike to secure their right to collective bargaining, to decent wages and to dignity on the job. They were public employees earning poverty wages, working long days in back-breaking labor. When the workers went on strike, they were risking everything. But the signs they carried, “I AM A MAN,” made it clear: Their action was about much more than wages. It was also about dignity.

Dr. King understood. “All labor has dignity,” he told the AFSCME members in Memphis. “You are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” Their cause was crucial to him because, as he said: “What good does being able to sit at a lunch counter do if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” Dr. King recognized that civil rights and workers’ rights are intertwined. If workers do not have a voice in the workplace or the right to stand up for themselves to negotiate at the bargaining table, then the voices of some people—those with wealth and power—matter more than others.

Dr. King would be gratified today that millions of Americans share his commitment to social and economic justice. Moreover, they are mobilizing in numbers that have been rarely seen since the 1960s. Throughout the country, we see the beginnings of a Main Street Movement that will reinvigorate and revive Dr. King’s hope for a beloved community, where all Americans work together for the common good. We see it in the opposition mounting in more than a dozen states to right-wing efforts to limit the ability of minorities, the poor, seniors and students to vote by passing Draconian voter-identification bills. Nearly a half century after Dr. King’s dream of voting rights was enacted into law, Americans will not stand for backdoor efforts to return to Jim Crow.

The Main Street Movement has brought together working families, civil rights organizations, church groups, students, environmentalists, the LGBT community and others to counter the efforts of radical elected officials, who have tried to turn back the clock to a time when only the powerful had a voice and a future. As we commemorate Dr. King with a remarkable memorial on the National Mall, we need to remember the challenge he posed to all of us: to create a nation that provides every citizen with the opportunity to stand with dignity. We need to be involved in this struggle and to do everything in our power to revive the dream for which Dr. King gave his life.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now Blog on August 24, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog