05/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Civil Rights Leaders Urge Passage of Employee Free Choice

Martin Luther King Jr. often drew the parallels and connections between the civil rights and union movements. Today, on the eve of the anniversary of King's assassination, national civil rights leaders called for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would give workers the choice of how to form a union.

During a telephone press conference, Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), a coalition of some 200 organizations, pointed out that unions have been one of the main vehicles for African Americans to move into the middle class.

The Employee Free Choice Act has been largely written about as a labor bill but those of us in the civil rights community know it is so much more...workers' rights are civil rights; and that the right to organize is a civil and human rights issue of the first magnitude.

From generation to generation, by organizing unions, working Americans have turned entire industries and occupations into sources of middle class incomes, secure benefits, and opportunities for upward mobility. This is true for Americans from every background--but especially for African Americans.

NAACP President Benjamin Jealous added that the fight for Employee Free Choice "is a fight not just to make sure everyone has a job, but to make sure everyone has access to a good job."

There are those who say the Employee Free Choice Act will hurt the economy. They forget that slavery was a full employment system. Everyone on the plantation had a job.

The reality is working people's income has flat-lined while the income of the wealthy has grown. In times when we're looking at getting our economy going again, putting more money in the pockets of working people is good for the entire country.

Listen to an audio recording of the press conference here.

The civil rights leaders' endorsement of the Employee Free Choice Act is important, writes Art Levine on the Huffington Post, and could help convince wavering senators to support the bill and is an indication that the battle for the legislation is far from over. Click here to read Levine's post.

Melanie Campbell, executive director of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, said,

It is outrageous that in this day and age, working men and women face the same kind of mistreatment and intimidation in the workplace when trying to form unions as civil rights leaders did when fighting for equal rights and protections.

Often what is lost in the back and forth "inside the beltway" debate over the Employee Free Choice Act is the real life impact of either being able to organize and bargain collectively or being intimidated and told to be quiet and not make a fuss.

Women in the workforce, particularly African American women have continually struggled for equal protection and equal employment opportunities. Often union membership has offered women not just the added wages and benefits but the adequate training to compete with their male counterparts.

Steven Pitts, labor policy specialist at the University of California Berkeley Labor Center, also spoke during the press conference.

The civil rights leaders echoed what labor educator Edgar Moore says in a guest column at the AFL-CIO website. In "African Americans Win With Unions," Moore, a faculty member at the University of Nebraska-Omaha's William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies, writes:

The Employee Free Choice Act is important for African American workers. Union membership has been a passageway to the middle class for generations of African American workers.

Last November, the National Baptist Convention of America, one of the nation's largest African American religious groups with 3 million members, endorsed the Employee Free Choice Act.

During the press call, Henderson summed up the issue by quoting labor giant A. Philip Randolph:

As A. Philip Randolph used to say, the two tickets for full equality for African Americans have been the voter registration card and the union card. The first card allows all Americans to choose better leaders. The second card allows all Americans to choose a better life.