Each year on the third Monday of January, we collectively honour the achievements and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was a trailblazer in the fight to end racial segregation and who promoted non-violent means to end the era of inequality in the United States and abroad. This year’s celebration will be on January 16, 2023.
While he dedicated his life’s work to furthering civil rights for Black folks in the United States, King’s vision for racial and social justice also encompassed the trade union movement. He was a tireless supporter of workers and he recognized early on the bonds and intersections of the labour movement and civil rights movement. Dr. King acknowledged that the enemies of racial justice are also enemies of unions. “The labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.” He also referred to unions as America’s first anti-poverty program.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s accomplishments are all thanks to his immense intellect, deep conviction, and lived experiences. These qualities helped him in navigating trials and tribulations, whilst leading a revolutionary movement consisting of rallies, marches, sit-ins, teach-ins, and various other demonstrations – all tools that we recognize as integral to the labour movement too. In fact, unions and labour organizations were among the earliest supporters of Dr. King and the civil rights movement, through donations to civil rights groups, support for anti-segregation protests, and the adoption of non-discrimination clauses in collective agreements.
In the 11-year period between 1957 and 1968, King became not only a leadership figure for Black folks in the United States, but also a global icon for justice for all. In this time frame, he traveled over six million miles and spoke more than twenty-five hundred times in places of injustice, action, and protest. He was a friend of workers and unions, supporting strikes, joining picket lines, expressing solidarity, and extolling the benefits of unions. As he wrote in 1962 to the leaders of the Amalgamated Laundry Workers, “As I have said many times, and believe with all my heart, the coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the Negro and the forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined.” He published numerous books and articles, including the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” regarded as the manifesto for the Black revolution. He led a 250,000 person-strong march on Washington, D.C., where he delivered his infamous “I Have a Dream” address. He was named Man of the Year by Time Magazine, and became the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35.
These tremendous undertakings are among the reasons we reflect today upon the great impact Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has had on the fight for oppressed communities. His vision and approaches for a better world are still immensely relevant to this day and can help us in combatting the rise of hateful rhetoric and racial violence. We have all seen the damage that silence and inaction can have on systemically marginalized groups, whether it be from those meant to serve and protect, the pandemic, climate change, or the spread of misinformation by politicians. It is our job as activists to work together to end these injustices and, as we do, we must draw upon the courage and integrity that Dr. King consistently demonstrated. At CUPE Ontario, we honour his example and values in our own efforts to tackle racism and discrimination, through our Anti-Racism Organizational Action Plan, Women in Leadership Development, and the work of CUPE Ontario’s Racial Justice Committee. Dr. King’s famous quote, “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws”, is one that was reflected upon particularly throughout the OSBCU Education Workers bargaining in 2022, when workers were unjustly legislated back to work using the Notwithstanding Clause in Bill 28. As a collective, we took on Ford and won back the worker’s right to strike for better working conditions.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a reminder to all of us that, while CUPE is made up of different Locals and members from various cultural/ethnic backgrounds and life experiences, we are one family in the fight for justice. Today is an opportunity for us to continue Dr. King’s legacy with a recognition, as he so eloquently stated, that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”