04/25/2014 12:05 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2014

Where Are the "Disrupters" for Labor on College Campuses?

Last week, Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME), delivered the 23rd annual Philip Murray Memorial Labor Lecture at Penn State's School of Labor and Employment Relations. The audience included students, faculty members, AFSCME members and members of other unions. This article is adapted from his remarks.)

To the students in attendance this evening, thank you for being here. You are the future of the labor movement - and of our nation.

Some of you may not know much about the people AFSCME represents. AFSCME members keep mountain roads clear in the dead of winter. We also ensure safe drinking water. Care for the sick in hospitals and nursing homes. Issue building permits and inspect buildings. Find safe homes for at-risk children. From accounting to sanitation disposal, AFSCME members are on the front lines of public service.

Our members are also committed activists who are willing to stand up for their beliefs. A group of these activists brought AFSCME to national attention in February of 1968.

The 1,300 sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1733 in Memphis made the tough choice to go on strike. These men, who were poor and black, upset the social order merely by starting a union. But then they went even further. They had the nerve to strike! Today we'd call that disrupting.

The city of Memphis, bowing to tremendous pressure, ultimately agreed to negotiate with the workers. They won a small raise and other modest improvements. But their victory came at a terrible cost: the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, who was in Memphis to support the strike.

Through that strike, the sanitation workers gained the voice, the dignity, the respect they had struggled for. Yet 46 years later, politicians are weakening unions, disrespecting workers and cheating them of the retirement security they have earned.

Income inequality - the gap between the very wealthy and the average working family - is worse now than it was before the Great Depression. In fact, since 2009, the richest 1 percent has captured 95 percent of all income gains, while the bottom 90 percent got poorer.

We now have an economy that forces people to raise their families by patching together two, even three low-paying jobs. It's an economy that often leaves you, as students, saddled with loans that are tougher to emerge from than bankruptcy.

And when so much wealth and power rests with so few people, they exercise outsize influence on our political system, drowning out other voices.

A strong, healthy labor movement tempers income inequality because the contracts we bargain put pressure even on non-unionized employers to increase wages and benefits. But when a smaller and smaller proportion of the workforce is in unions, the divide between the 1 percent and the working poor widens.

Right now, only about 11 percent of all workers are union members. That's a lower proportion of the workforce than 100 years ago.

What happened?

A number of factors contributed to where the labor movement is today:

• Plants were closed in heavy manufacturing states and jobs were shipped to countries where labor is dirt cheap.
• Politicians started passing laws that made it harder to join unions, and harder for unions to collect the dues that finance everything we do.
• Companies started spending millions on law firms that specialize in shutting down organizing campaigns.

And there have been self-inflicted wounds as well. Some unions got stale, took things for granted and stopped making the case for why unions matter and what they do for working people.

We need a strong labor movement, now more than ever, to bring about economic fairness, ensure employees a voice in the workplace without fear of retribution and protect the rights that workers have won over the decades.

Every workplace benefit and right exists because of the activism and bargaining of unions. The 8-hour-work day. Overtime. The end of child labor. Paid vacation and sick days. Non-discrimination laws. Grievance procedures that provide a process for challenging unfair treatment. That's a powerful legacy to build on.

And make no mistake - despite the virulence of the opposition, we are building on that legacy. We've seen the walkouts at Walmart and McDonald's by men and women who have a lot to lose and nothing to protect them. They understand that the labor movement is the last line of defense for working families. Even college football players are looking to unions for support. Players at Northwestern University, tired of a system that enriches schools and coaches but often leaves them with nothing but broken bodies and dashed dreams, are voting on whether to join a union.

People are looking for a way to make their voices heard. In 1968, the sanitation workers of Memphis found a way, through their union. It's time for you to be disrupters, just as they were.

Take a fresh look at the labor movement. You could be organizers who make the case for union membership, or push for laws that help college students and working families. You could be research analysts who negotiate contracts or graphic artists who rebrand unions or communications specialists who use social media to advance our agenda.

Union activism isn't easy, but it brings about real change. When the sanitation workers gathered their courage all those years ago, there was nothing easy about the choice they made. There were no roadmaps for where they going, but they did it anyway. The sanitation workers of Local 1733 demanded respect with "the fierce urgency of now."

It's because of what they did back then that I'm convinced we can do great things right now. As Dr. King said, "This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action."