The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr spoke these awe-inspiring words at the Illinois AFL-CIO Convention almost 50 years ago, yet his message about hope, progress and ‘bold struggles’ still rings true today — perhaps truer than ever, as we face increasingly aggressive attacks on our rights from the ‘captains of industry’ and their undue influence on our government.
Throughout his life, Dr. King recognized that the fight for civil rights and fight for workers’ rights are so closely intertwined that there is simply no way to address one without the other – a point he aptly demonstrated when he travelled to Memphis in the spring of 1968 to stand with striking sanitation workers, most of whom were African-American. That was where Dr. King was when he was assassinated on April 4th, 1968.
From King’s final speech:
Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be.
Today, as we commemorate the birthday of Dr King (who would have been 83), we must also fulfill his legacy by heeding that call to action. King’s ‘bold struggles’ are our struggles, as we fight for the same principles he outlined half a century ago — retirement security, unemployment protection, fair wages, and, most importantly, hope and progress.
Across the Midwest, those ‘bold struggles’ are centered on stopping legislation aimed at stripping public sector workers of their union rights. We’ve already achieved victory in repealing SB 5 in Ohio, and the ‘bold struggles’ continue in Wisconsin and Michigan. And now, as Indiana Republicans push “right to work” legislation that would strip all workers, not just those in the public sector, of their rights and wages, that ‘bold struggle’ is becoming even bolder.
Even here in California workers are facing our own ‘bold struggle’ — to beat back a deceptive initiative that’s nothing more than a highly orchestrated corporate power grab to silence the voice of workers while giving the ‘captains of industry’ free rein to spend unlimited amounts in order to buy our elections.
Staving off this corporate power grab won’t be easy, but in the famed words of Dr. King:
The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
But as Dr. King taught us, justice doesn’t just happen. It needs a push that only grassroots power can provide. And today we continue to draw inspiration from a man whose fight for justice – economic and racial – changed the world.