It’s Up to Us: Labor Carrying the King Legacy Forward

The following is adapted from remarks delivered by President Saunders at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor’s Martin Luther King Day Breakfast on January 14, 2023.

Union family, it’s a great honor to spend this special day with you, as we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as we reflect on his sacrifice and recommit to his work.

Dr. King was many things – a faith leader and fearless humanitarian, a teacher and preacher of non-violent resistance, the moral leader of the civil rights movement that tore down legalized segregation in the South. But he was also, as everyone in this room knows, an unshakeable ally of the trade union movement.

Dr. King understood the union difference – the way that a voice on the job and a seat at the table changes the lives of working people. His work was driven by the belief that labor rights and civil rights are one and the same, that we can’t fight poverty without fighting prejudice, that we can’t have racial justice if we don’t have economic justice.

He knew that right to work had its roots in the racist brutality of Jim Crow. He called the labor movement “the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.”

At AFSCME, we are proud to have deep historical ties to Dr. King. In 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, 1,300 Black sanitation workers represented by AFSCME Local 1733 went on strike. In an act of incredible courage, they took a stand against dangerous and degrading working conditions, the 20th century plantation they toiled in every single day. They wanted recognition of their union, but also recognition of their basic humanity. In the face of tear gas and nightsticks, they marched under a simple but defiant slogan: I AM A MAN.

And Dr. King joined their struggle. The strike represented to him everything that the next phase of the civil rights movement should be about. If Montgomery was about the right to sit at the front of the bus…and if Selma was about access to the ballot box…then Memphis was about the dignity of labor. He traveled to Memphis, rallying the community and marching side by side with the sanitation workers – a show of solidarity that would cost him his life.

More than half a century later, we can say that we have made real progress as a society because of Dr. King’s passion for justice. If he were here today, Dr. King would be inspired and energized by some of the huge wins enjoyed by working people in recent years.

40,000 California child care providers – predominantly women of color serving communities of color – winning collective bargaining rights and forming a union.

Employees of Jon Donaire Desserts in Santa Fe Springs, California – an overwhelmingly Latina workforce – going on strike for 113 days until they finally got a fair contract early last year.

Workers at cultural institutions, including the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, organizing in unprecedented numbers. This is a young workforce, bringing fresh energy to the fight for worker justice.

Late last year at the University of California, the third-largest employer in this state, tens of thousands of academic workers went on strike for nearly six weeks to secure better pay – the biggest higher education work stoppage since at least 1990.

Throughout the economy and across the country, workers are taking on some of the world’s most powerful corporations, from Amazon to Starbucks – and winning.

Dr. King would be proud of this rising wave of worker activism – of the way working people are finding their voice and flexing their muscles, standing up to the boss and demanding change. But there is a lot of unfinished business. We’ve still got plenty of urgent work to do in order to realize Dr. King’s dream.

Voting rights are threatened, leaving some of our most vulnerable people disenfranchised. Systemic racism is still baked into many of our institutions. Black lives are devalued. Immigrants from Mexico, Central America and around the world face discrimination and denigration. Especially during COVID, the AAPI community has been targeted with hate speech and victimized by violence.

Too many of our neighborhoods are underserved and under-resourced. Too many working families are struggling to get by, let alone get ahead. The economy is still rigged in favor of the super-wealthy, folks who are already standing on third base while millions of people of color can’t even buy a ticket to the game.

The fact is that the values Dr. King lived and died for remain under attack, and it is up to us – the labor movement – to fight back. It’s up to us to be agitators for change. It’s up to us to answer Dr. King’s call to action.

It’s up to us to expand the rights and freedoms of all working people. It’s up to us to ensure that workers can come together and build power, to improve their workplaces and their communities, to get the dignity and respect they deserve.

It’s up to us to help close racial disparities in wages, employment, education, housing, health care and much more. And these disparities have all been made worse by the pandemic – because whenever our country faces a crisis, it is felt most painfully in communities of color.

It’s up to us, union family. It’s up to us to build a country where all three of my grandsons – as well as the granddaughter I’ll be blessed with later this year – can grow up without being afraid to walk or drive in their own neighborhoods, or anyone else’s. For my grandchildren and your grandchildren…for all of us…let’s finally make sure that this nation is true to its creed, with all of us judged not by the color of our skin but the content of our character, as Dr. King famously said.

The labor movement must be a force for racial justice, and that work starts from within. We have a responsibility to eliminate explicit and implicit bias wherever we see it, including inside the labor movement. We’ve got to take a hard look in the mirror at ways we might be falling short of our ideals. We can’t just pay lip service to the principles of equity and inclusion; we must live them every single day. It’s not enough to be advocates for racial justice; we’ve got to be practitioners of racial justice.

Our society is plagued by toxic levels of conflict and contentiousness that represent everything Dr. King spent a lifetime fighting against. Over the last several years, the tone of our national conversation has become increasingly divisive and abrasive. And it’s tearing at our social fabric.

In this environment, we in the labor movement have a responsibility to help repair the breach, to push back against those who fan the flames of division, to rally people around our common humanity. It’s up to us – a multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial labor movement – to build a big table where differences can be resolved with mutual respect. We must celebrate our diversity as a source of strength, moving forward in unity and solidarity.

That’s what Dr. King would ask of us if he were here today. That’s the best way for us to celebrate his life, to honor his memory, to carry his legacy forward. I am eager to do that challenging work with all of you. Let’s get to it – there’s no time to waste.