"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 ... Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer, and there are no civil rights."
Even then, Dr. King and other advocates for civil rights and workers' rights understood the connection between strong unions and long-term social and economic justice for African Americans.
Since their heyday in the '40s and '50s, unions have played a major role in bettering African Americans and all workers' economic well-being by improving working conditions, raising safety standards in the workplace, and carving a path to the middle class. Unions gave us sick leave, the five-day work week, and collective bargaining power that built the nation's middle class and raised black median income by 131 percent during 27 years following World War II.
Today, unions don't have the same strength in numbers. Union density has precipitously declined since the late 1970s. The decline has correlated with stagnating wages and a shrinking middle class. Meanwhile, income inequality has worsened, the rich have gotten richer and corporate profits have soared.
This great divergence between the wealthy and the rest of us apparently isn't enough for some, though. Unions continue to face relentless attacks by corporate and wealthy special interests, such as the Koch brothers and their right-wing allies who weeks ago successfully ramrodded through a "right to work" law in Michigan. The symbolism is profound. Michigan is the nostalgic cradle of the nation's middle class and union strength; it is one of the states where blacks fleeing the South's Jim Crow flocked during the Great Migration in search of opportunity and better wages. Going after unions in Michigan is tantamount to going after working people's jugular.
So-called right to work laws have the express intent to cripple unions by allowing employees who benefit from higher wages and benefits that come from collective bargaining agreements to opt out of paying union dues. The strategy is brazenly transparent: Starve unions of dues, weaken their power to stand up for workers through collective bargaining, and transfer all power to set or suppress wages to corporate bosses. States with such laws on the books have higher poverty rates and lower wages than states without such laws, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Right now, we cannot predict with absolute certainty what will happen in Michigan as a result of this law. But what we do know is that it didn't happen in a vacuum. Ramrodding through this law is one part of a broader, coordinated agenda to silence working people in the workplace, at the ballot box, in the halls of power -- you name it. Those who have plenty want even more, and they're willing to try to dupe us with false slogans such as "right to work" laws to get it. Unions are a prime target because, despite declining density, they remain one of the last voices for working people's interests. Weaken unions and you dampen working people's collective voice.
For African Americans in particular, the relentless effort to weaken unions is a clear threat to our ability to attain or maintain a middle-class lifestyle. The public sector, which has higher union participation than the private sector, has been called the single most important source of employment for African Americans, not only for the number of jobs it provides but for the quality of those jobs. According to a 2011 report, "Black Workers and the Public Sector," released by Dr. Steven Pitts of the University of California-Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, African Americans are 30 percent more likely than other workers to be employed in the public sector; black men in the public sector earned 23 percent more than black men in the nation's entire workforce; and black women earned 24 percent more.
Overall, black union members are 16 percent more likely to have employer-provided health coverage and 19 percent more likely to have pensions, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. They earn about $183 more each week than their nonunion counterparts and 28 percent more overall. Union, especially public sector union jobs, have given more blacks an opportunity to earn middle-class wages.
More than 50 years after Dr. King warned of being "fooled by false slogans" such as "right to work," working people are facing a string of coordinated, corporate-backed attacks -- including a push for "right to work" laws. But what the wealthy special interests don't have behind them are numbers.
SEIU and its allies will continue to join all working people, union and non-union, in a movement to fight against income inequality and rebuild the middle class by challenging our elected officials who side with special interests over working people.