For more than 75 years, organized labor and United Way have maintained a strong relationship grounded in the shared belief that volunteerism is the essence of a democratic society. It is important to remember that the union member is, first and foremost, a citizen of the community who cooperates with other citizens in making the community a good place in which to live, to work, to raise children and to retire.
On Jan. 15, Rockford United Labor and the Labor Day Picnic Committee presented a check in the amount of $10,000 from the proceeds of the 2017 Labor Day Picnic Car Show. This event brought together countless labor partners as well as friends of labor who used their sponsorship dollars to benefit the United Way of Rock River Valley’s Community Fund.
Why did we choose Jan. 15, Mr. Luther King Jr. Day, to recognize contributions of members of our local labor unions? Mainly because for many Americans, the story of how the Labor Movement and the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century connect is an often unknown piece of history. Civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. have always been labor leaders too. For instance:
• It was unions and union members such as UAW’s (United Auto Workers) President Walter Reuther who frequently came to Dr. King’s aid with the legal and financial help needed to continue the fight for equality. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, and many other civil rights protests, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights activists were oftentimes jailed for civil disobedience.
• In 1963, office space was given to Martin Luther King Jr. in the Solidarity House located in Detroit, Michigan. Plenty of work was done there to advance both the Labor and Civil Rights Movements, but this was also the location where Dr. King penned the infamous Nobel Prize winning speech, “I Have a Dream.”
• Union members marched alongside Dr. King for the March on Washington in 1963, as well as in countless cities around the country.
• In Dr. King’s final moments, he stood in solidarity with sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, on a Labor Strike in 1968. He fought with labor until the very end. This is a part of Dr. King’s speech during that event:
“If you will judge anything here in this struggle, you’re commanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive. For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician. All labor has worth.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memphis, Tennessee, March 18, 1968 (Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike).
Labor and civil rights share a common path because they share a common vision for a democratic society free from inequality. As we honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy, I am reminded that even his last fight was a fight for the both the Civil Rights Movement and the Labor Movement. Thank you Dr. King, and thank you organized labor for continuing the people’s fight!
Gina Meeks is labor engagement manager for United Way of Rock River Valley.