Martin Luther King Jr. Talks about the Labor Movement
"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. When in the thirties the wave of union organization
crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself
but the whole society."
—Speech to the state convention of the Illinois AFL-CIO, Oct. 7, 1965
"Negroes in the United States read the history of labor and find it mirrors their own experience. We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the goodwill and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us. They deplore our discontent, they resent our will to organize, so that we may guarantee that humanity will prevail and equality will be exacted. They are shocked that action organizations, sit-ins, civil disobedience and protests are becoming our everyday tools, just as strikes, demonstrations and union organization became yours to insure that bargaining power genuinely existed on both sides of the table.
"We want to rely upon the goodwill of those who oppose us. Indeed,
we have brought forward the method of nonviolence to give an example of
unilateral goodwill in an effort to evoke it in those who have not yet
felt it in their hearts. But we know that if we are not simultaneously
organizing our strength we will have no means to move forward. If we do
not advance, the crushing burden of centuries of neglect and economic
deprivation will destroy our will, our spirits and our hope. In this
way, labor's historic tradition of moving forward to create vital
people as consumers and citizens has become our own tradition, and for
the same reasons."
—Speaking to the AFL-CIO on Dec. 11, 1961
"We know of no more crucial civil rights issue facing Congress today than the need to increase the federal minimum wage and extend its coverage.
"We believe it is imperative that farm laborers, among the most abused and neglected of all American workers, be included at last among those who benefit from the Fair Labor Standards Act. We want coverage extended to include those millions in retail trades, laundries, hospitals and nursing homes, restaurants, hotels, small logging operations and cotton gins who still work for starvation wages.
"While we are mindful of the shocking fact that less than one-half
of all non-white workers are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act,
we do not speak for Negro workers only. A living wage should be the
right of all working Americans, and this is what we wish to urge upon
our Congressmen and Senators as they now prepare to deal with this
—Statement on minimum wage legislation, March 18, 1966
"Today Negroes want above all else to abolish poverty in their lives and in the lives of the white poor. This is the heart of their program. To end the humiliation was a start, but to end poverty is a bigger task. It is natural for Negroes to turn to the labor movement because it was the first and pioneer anti-poverty program….
"Negroes are not the only poor in the nation. There are nearly twice as many white poor as Negro, and therefore the struggle against poverty is not involved solely with color or racial discrimination but with elementary economic justice….
"Now most serious thinkers acknowledge that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands, it does not eliminate all poverty.
"To a degree, we have been attacking the problem by increasing
purchasing power through higher wage scales and increased Social
Security benefits. But these measures are exercised with restraint and
come only as a consequence of organized struggles…Those at the lowest
economic level, the poor white, the Negro, the aged, are traditionally
unorganized and have little or no ability to force a growth in their
consumer potential. They stagnate or become even poorer in relation to
the larger society."
—Speaking to shop stewards of Local 815, Teamsters and the Allied Trades Council, May 2, 1967
"Less than a century ago the laborer had no rights, little or no respect, and led a life which was socially submerged and barren….American industry organized misery into sweatshops and proclaimed the right of capital to act without restraints and without conscience. The inspiring answer to this intolerable and dehumanizing existence was economic organization through trade unions. The worker became determined not to wait for charitable impulses to grow in his employer. He constructed the means by which fairer sharing of the fruits of his toil had to be given to him or the wheels of industry, which he alone turned, would halt and wealth for no one would be available…
"History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.
"Negroes are almost entirely a working people…. 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. That is why Negroes support
labor's demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the
labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed
creature, spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor
propaganda from the other mouth."
—Speaking to the AFL-CIO on Dec. 11, 1961
"In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being
fooled by false slogans, such as 'right to work.' It is a law to rob us
of our civil rights and job rights. It is supported by Southern
segregationists who are trying to keep us from achieving our civil
rights and our right of equal job opportunity. Its purpose is to
destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which
unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone…Wherever
these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are
fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do
this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote."
—Speaking on right-to-work laws in 1961
"With the settlement of many of these early strikes, there was
little or nothing added to the pay envelope, little or nothing for job
security and a mountain of debts to pay and harsh memories to forget.
Yet there was one thing that was won, one thing that was fought for as
indispensable, one thing for which all the pain and sacrifice was
justified--union recognition. It seemed so miniscule a victory that
people outside the labor movement scorned it as in fact just a defeat.
But to those who understood, union recognition meant the employer's
acknowledgement of that strength, and the two meant the opportunity to
fight again for further gains with united and multiplied power. As
contract followed contract, the pay envelope fattened and fringe
benefits and job rights grew to the mature work standards of today. All
of these started with winning first union recognition."
—Speaking to shop stewards of Local 815, Teamsters and the Allied Trades Council on May 2, 1967
Source: Now Is the Time. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Labor in the South: The Case for a Coalition. Booklet prepared by the Southern Labor Institute under the auspices of the Labor Subcommittee of the King Holiday Commission, designed by the AFT and printed by AFSCME. January 1986.