Today we mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day, celebrating the work of the civil rights movement which he helped to lead and honouring his legacy by continuing the fight for racial and economic justice.
Throughout his life, Dr. King worked closely with organized labour. His last days were spent standing in solidarity with black sanitation workers in Memphis on strike following years of poor pay and dangerous working conditions. Dr. King’s connection to trade unionism was integral to his fight against racism; the intersection of economic and racial justice means we can’t achieve one without achieving the other.
To that end, CUPE Ontario and the CUPE Ontario Racial Justice Committee are working with others to organize campaigns to combat white supremacy on campuses, pursue a wide-ranging Anti-Racism Organizational Action Plan to fight racism within our own union and in our workplaces, support grassroots anti-racism movements like Black Lives Matter, and resist Ford Conservative policies that hurt racialized workers and communities.
There are those who would have us believe that the fight against racism in Ontario is less intense than in other places around the world. Yet a 2018 report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission finds that Black people have been “grossly overrepresented” in incidents where police used force resulting in injury or death. The rise of far-right politics represented by the likes of Donald Trump and Doug Ford has emboldened extremists to air racist, Islamophobic, and anti-Semetic views. According to statistics Canada, hate crimes reached an all time high in 2017. Racialized communities also continue to face high levels of poverty: while the overall poverty rate in Canada is 11%, for racialized persons it is 22%.
The Conservative government’s rhetoric and policies disproportionately impact racialized communities. Premier Ford has cut funding to the anti-racism directorate and said he doesn’t support discrimination but feels that “certain carding is required.” During the 2018 provincial election, Ford turned his back on the first official provincial leadership debate organized by the Black community. In December 2018, Ford cut millions in funding for specialized programs, many of which help at-risk youth from racialized communities. His backtracking on key labour reforms under Bill 148, including the cancellation of the $15/hr minimum wage, has disproportionately impacted racialized workers.
The evils Dr. King fought against – racism and economic inequality – are as stark now as they were in his day. Despite meagre gains, we have been slipping steadily backwards. Martin Luther King Jr. day is not just about remembrance, but mobilization and action: we must breathe new life into principles around which Dr. King and others organized, and the members of CUPE Ontario are committed to doing so.