Doctor Martin Luther King's immortal "I have a dream" speech, delivered 50 years ago today, in front of more than a quarter of million black and white Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington for the March for Jobs and Justice, resonates in our age of inequality. His speech was as much an indictment of the failures of the American political and economic system as it was a hymn to the American dream. What would Doctor King make of today's America where inequality is at record levels and the right to join a union and collective bargaining is under constant attack? He recognized that labour rights were an inalienable part of civil rights and that all forms of inequality had to be swept away. He recognized the need for action and that "business as usual" no longer worked.
The night before his assassination, less than four years after the historic Lincoln Memorial speech, he was addressing striking sanitation workers down in Memphis. King knew the workers' struggle mirrored the need for economic equality and social justice throughout the United States.
In an earlier address to the Illinois State Convention of the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organizations, King pointed out the similarities between the trade union movement and the civil rights movement and recalled what unions had achieved in America to date.
"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," King said. In that same speech King laid the blame for workers being kept down both at the door of the politicians and big business while eulogizing "the wave of union organization" in the thirties which "crested over the nation...(and) carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society."
Within King's "I have a dream speech," there is a call to action, a demand that has yet to be met. King tells the crowd they are in Washington "to cash a check" and that the Declaration of Independence was a "promissory note to which every American was to fall heir." He said, "It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
In terms of inequality, working people both black and white are still not able to cash that check. Without strong unions and decent work, the check will still come back marked insufficient funds. The labor movement will continue the struggle against inequality because we share King's dream. A dream based in reality and a belief that a fairer, just world is achievable for both black and white.