King Dream Rooted in Labor’s Rising
This Martin Luther King Day comes just weeks after a year that’s been dubbed ‘the year of the strike’ because in 2023 there were well over 300 such work stoppages involving 450,000 union workers willing to take the risk of walking out on their employer, a 900 percent increase from just a few years earlier.
Automakers, actors, writers, nurses, and a long list of other occupations were fed up enough that they walked off their job by the tens of thousands. Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board reported in 2022 receiving over 2,500 applications for workplace union representation, a 53 percent increase over the previous year.
King’s last address in April of 1968 was to striking sanitation workers in Memphis who went out in part because two of their co-workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker had been crushed to death by the errant trash compactor of their sanitation truck. Throughout King’s career, it was unions like the United Autoworkers, the Transport Workers Union, SEIU 1199, AFSCME and others that he saw as essential allies in his campaign for mass collective nonviolent action.
For King, the civil rights and labor movements were intertwined because they both required disciplined non-violent collective action to succeed. In his “American Dream” speech, a version of which he gave at St. Peter’s College in September of 1965, he spoke of the “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
King continued. “And whatever it affects one directly it affects all indirectly. And as long as there is extreme poverty in this world no one can be totally rich, even if he has a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people cannot expect to live more than 28 or 30 years, no one can be totally healthy even if he just got a checkup in the finest clinic of the nation. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
In a 1962 speech in front of the National Maritime Union, MLK gave a speech that more than a half century speaks eerily to our national circumstance 24 years into the 21st century. In that address he presciently frames out the contours of the opposition to the social justice agenda he shared with so much of the labor movement that appears even more lethal today.
“Our nation is facing severe trials in these turbulent days because one region of our country still holds itself above law, as if it were cut adrift from constitutional obligations, and insurrection and mutiny against the government is still possible,” King said. “They not only abuse persons, but they debase the democratic traditions of the nation in their defiant resort to anarchy and stormtrooper rule.”
King continued. “Emulating the labor movement, we in the South have embraced mass actions — boycotts, sit-ins and, more recently, a widespread utilization of the ballot…The secret ballot is our secret weapon.”
John Samuelsen is the international president of the TWU which represents 155,000 workers across the country and here in New Jersey in the airline, railroad, transit, university, utility, as well as service sectors. It was one of the TWU’s founders, Michael J. Quill who was one of the earliest and most ardent labor leaders to support King’s work.
“The very essence of Dr King is fulfilled when workers organize together across lines ethnic and racial against their real common enemy , the bosses,” Samuelsen texted InsiderNJ. “Workers have far more in common with each other , regardless of skin color or religious / ethnic identity , than they have in common with the CEOs.”
In New York City alone, TWU lost over 100 members as a consequence of their occupational exposure running the city’s bus and subway.
It wasn’t just COVID that sparked this great reawakening. Ever since President Reagan, a former union leader, kneecapped the nation’s striking air traffic controllers by firing them, the union movement went into a tailspin with union density plummeting. And with the power of collective action by workers on the wane, corporations remade our society into a wealth pyramid with a tax and trade policy regime which accelerated wealth concentration to levels not seen since the Gilded Age.
According to a RAND Corporation analysis, during that decline the nation’s top one percent was able to extract $50 trillion in wealth from the bottom 90 percent of the nation’s households. Today, Fortune reports the average CEO with a publicly traded corporation makes 272 times the median salary of their employees, meaning it would take five lifetimes to make what the boss makes in a single year.
It’s no accident that this unprecedented 21st century surge in labor militancy came after the COVID pandemic that killed 1.1 million Americans and an untold number of transit workers, first responders and other essential workers including 3,600 nurses in that first wave of the mass death event. 700 of those nurses were from New Jersey and New York which was Ground Zero for COVID. Two-thirds of them were people of color.
Across the country, healthcare worker unions were the only entities daring to hold the multi-billion dollar hospital industrial complex accountable for putting profits ahead of people by paying out Wall Street salaries for CEOs during a mass death event.
Tens of thousands of union healthcare workers who work for Kaiser Permanente in several states won a 21 percent pay increase over four years following a three-day strike in October, the largest such action in U.S. history. The tentative deal includes restrictions on outsourcing and measures to promote staff retention, a key concern of the coalition of unions led by SEIU.
“Millions of Americans are safer today because tens of thousands of dedicated healthcare workers fought for and won the critical resources they need and that patients need,” Caroline Lucas, executive director of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, said in a statement. “This historic agreement will set a higher standard for the healthcare industry nationwide.”
The Oct. 4 to Oct. 7 strike by the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions was organized by eight unions including members of SEIU and OPIEU in California, Colorado, Maryland, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and Washington D.C. Staffing, and higher wages were key demands.
Here in New Jersey, USW Nurses Local 4-200 won their strike at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital for better wages, improved working conditions and more robust staffing which has been documented to improve patient outcomes, promote infection control as well as encourage nurse retention, something that’s essential in a country where over one million nurses have opted to not be at the bedside.
Judy Danella, RN, is the president of USW Nurses Local 4-200.
“The five months’ strike was definitely an action aimed at the betterment of the patient, of the society, and of our nurses,” Danella told InsiderNJ. “It’s a hard road to walk but we were willing to put our employment at risk to improve the future of nursing.”
A broad coalition of nurses unions and the New Jersey State AFL-CIO continue to push for state legislation to codify safer staffing in New Jersey’s hospitals.
“Healthcare workers suffer moral injury every day working short staffed. They know they won’t be able do the job they were trained to do and therefore, patients will suffer,” wrote Debbie White, RN, and president of HPAE, New Jersey’s largest healthcare union. “This year, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, we are fighting to get elected leaders to pass a safe staffing law that would enable healthcare workers to give patients the best possible care- the care they deserve.”
The long simmering rebirth of the American labor movement is producing results for workers and their families in a way that will have generational consequences.
The United Auto Workers’ strike resulted in a 25 percent wage hike and the end of an exploitative tiered workforce which depressed younger workers’ earnings for a generation.
The Teamsters, who drilled hard for a strike, emerged with a landmark deal giving all full- and part-time UPS Teamsters $2.75 more per hour in 2023 and over the length of the contract a total $7.50 per hour increase. Wage gains for part-time workers were double the amount achieved in previous UPS deals with current part-time workers who will receive a 48 percent average total wage increase over the next five years.
Kevin Brown is the New Jersey state director of 32 BJ SEIU which is the nation’s largest building service worker union with 175,000 member in 12 states and Washington D.C. His union won a 4.5 percent annual wage increase and expanded pension benefits to an additional 5,000 union members in New Jersey.
“Collective action is the key to everything,” Brown told InsiderNJ. “If you have a voice on the job and you are able to sit down with your employer you improve tremendously your conditions at work and for your life as well as your family’s life. That’s how we make people’s lives better and that’s the same struggle Dr. King’s life was committed to.”
Brown continued. “The history of 2023 was that of the year of the strike. We had not only the UAW but we had Kaiser—we had SAG-AFTRA—the Writers Guild and in New Jersey we had USW Nurses Local 4-200. Basically, everybody won and so that certainly helped when we were bargaining for 70,000 workers up and down the East Coast. In 2023, workers have been making real gains at the bargaining table and that changes peoples’ lives and that can only be done through collective action and that’s what Dr. King’s mission was all about.”
“Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized the common purpose of the civil rights movement and the labor movement to improving the lives of all working class people, including those of color,” texted Fran Ehret, New Jersey state director of the CWA, which represents 70,000 workers in the private and public sectors. “He understood that by joining these movements together it would build power and a greater voice for their common cause.”
Most of the labor activists that are reviving the American union movement were not on the planet when King walked the earth. But the torch has been passed and the “dream” endures.
Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation
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