The Ongoing Struggle for Workers' Rights

05/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

41 years ago today Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee while helping lead a struggle of city sanitation workers trying to form a union, and ,bargain collectively with their employer.

Today, people of good will all over America pause to remember Dr. King Jr., his struggle and that fight in Memphis to win the simple freedom to form a union and bargain collectively.

Unfortunately, this fight is not finished in America. For workers in the private sector it is harder to form a union and engage in collective bargaining today than it was in 1968. Corporations routinely harass, coerce, intimidate, and even fire workers for trying to form unions.

We remember and honor Dr. King and take inspiration from his life and legacy today. As we struggle together- union members, civil rights leaders, students people of faith, community leaders, and human rights activists- to win the freedom to form unions and bargain collectively by passing the Employee Free Choice Act.

We often forget that Dr. King well understood and often articulated that union membership was the best exit route from poverty. He saw unions as essential to his struggle against poverty and economic injustice. So when he was invited to Memphis he went- against the arguments of his staff- to amplify the voice of those sanitation workers and their union, AFSCME.

Reflecting on Dr. King and union organizing, I've often heard Dr. Joseph Lowry longtime President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference say that civil rights without silver rights are empty rights are empty promises. Social justice is not possible without economic justice.

But the struggle in Memphis was about so much more than economic justice. At its core, it was a collective demand for dignity and respect. Those sanitation workers led by T.O Jones and Bill Lucy knew that they would never win basic human dignity without organization, without a union without collective action. That's why they carried their iconic sign- "I am a Man," taking their place in the long struggle of oppressed people in human history to demand and win the dignity and respect all human beings deserve. Sojourner Truth, had said a century before, "Ain't I a woman?"

It is as true today as it was in 1968 or 1864 working people organize unions to win basic human dignity and respect- and to win a better life for their families and children.

And those who oppose workers organizing whether Mayor Henry Lobe in 1968 or the Chamber of Commerce today or Jackson-Lewis in Nebraska Beef stand against the most fundamental thread of human history- the collective struggle for human dignity. Organizing is what makes is most human. We are a social species. We mostly live and work together. And when we use the social nature of our species to raise everyone up together, every family, everyone's kids- not by individual action- but together, that is when we are most human. That is the highest form of human endeavor.

So today as we struggle across America to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, we walk the path of history made by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and Gene Debs and Walter Reuther and Caesar Chavez and Dr. King and thousands more before them to say we organize to win justice -- social and economic -- and to win dignity.

That struggle is practically acute today in America because 30 years of failed trickle-down economics, union busting, deregulation, and corporate power run wild has taken our country to the verge of economic collapse. 30 years of wage stagnation and decline, of busting and exporting and outsourcing and subcontracting middle class producing union jobs has left us with too little demand, too little consumption power, too little buying power to drive the great American Economic Engine. And so our economy is in a ditch. And no matter what we do, no matter how much money we throw at the banks and financial institutions, we will not rebuild an economy that works for everyone until we restore the freedom to form unions and bargain collectively and pass the Employee Free Choice Act.

That legislation will do 3 simple things; enact real penalties on employers who violate the law, guarantee that workers who form unions get a first contract by providing meditation and arbitration, and allow workers to choose a simplified, streamlined, democratic process for forming their unions -- and a majority will sign up.