“In the days to come, organized labor will increase its importance in the destinies of Negroes. Automation is imperceptibly but inexorably producing dislocations, skimming off unskilled labor from the industrial force. The displaced are flowing into proliferating service occupations. These enterprises are traditionally unorganized and provide low wage scales with longer hours. The Negroes pressed into these services need union protection, and the union movement needs their membership to maintain its relative strength in the whole society.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote those words 53 years ago. Talk about prophetic. He spoke about the dangers of machines replacing workers. He identified the peril in the expanse of low-wage service and gig jobs. King saw the future of racial and economic inequality that faced Black workers as a result of corporate greed.
He spoke out against it often. But he was never fatalistic about it. He always believed change would come. Equality would rise. If, and only if, workers generally, and Black workers specifically, held power to determine their own destiny.
From “Martin Luther King Jr. Was a Union Man” by Peter Cole, In These Times:
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.
In 1967, nearly 30% of workers in the US had a union on the job. Today that number has dipped to 11%. Unfortunately, King’s dream of Black workers sharing in the prosperity America has long offered those of privilege, has largely been unfulfilled.
Economic Policy Institute:
“Black workers are twice as likely to be unemployed as white workers overall (6.4% vs. 3.1%). Even black workers with a college degree are more likely to be unemployed than similarly educated white workers (3.5% vs. 2.2%). When they are employed, black workers with a college or advanced degree are more likely than their white counterparts to be underemployed when it comes to their skill level—almost 40% are in a job that typically does not require a college degree, compared with 31% of white college grads. This relatively high black unemployment and skills-based underemployment suggests that racial discrimination remains a failure of an otherwise tight labor market.”
There are lots of reasons for these bleak numbers: Structural racism. Inequality in the criminal justice system. Disparity in educational opportunity. But a common theme in King’s writings and speeches was the need for Black workers to have a union on the job. He called unions the “first anti-poverty program,” one that “transforms misery and despair into hope and progress.”
Today, recognition is growing that racial equality is inextricably linked to people of color having power on the job. Power that only comes from the right to stand together in a union and negotiate fair pay and decent benefits with your boss.
Natalie Spievack writes for the Urban Institute:
“A 2012 study found that if unionization rates remained at their 1970s level—when African American workers were more likely than white workers to be union members—black-white weekly wage gaps would be nearly 30 percent lower among women and 3 to 4 percent lower among men. Research also consistently finds that racial wage gaps are smaller among union members than among nonunion members.”
History remembers King’s “Dream” of racial equality. It’s what we celebrate every year on his birthday. But it’s also important to reflect on just how integral King believed economic power and unions were to his “Dream” becoming reality.
King at the 1961 AFL-CIO Convention:
“I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living will be one with no thought to their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians or any other distinctions. This will be the day when we bring into full realization the American dream—a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few; a dream of a land where men will not argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character; a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone, but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of the human personality. That is the dream…”
The Dream is still alive. It’s up to all of us to work tirelessly to make it come true by giving working people of all backgrounds the power to hold their economic destinies in their own hands with a union on the job.