Martin Luther King Jr. was as vocal about union power as he was about racial injustice - but no one remembers it
- Martin Luther King Jr. supported union membership and criticized US employment laws.
- In the years following King's death, union membership dropped sharply, despite research showing industries with strong union membership have higher average wages.
- But collective bargaining might be reviving. Last year was a record year for labor strikes, and non-union groups are leading the new labor movement.
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To some extent, Martin Luther King Jr. was a union supporter.
Many Americans remember the civil rights leader for his peaceful protests against segregation and racism, but fewer know his stance on workers rights.
"The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it," King said at the keynote address at the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations's annual convention in 1961. "Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them."
King also said America's "right to work" employment laws - which means employees can work at a company without joining its union - were a "false slogan" in a 1961 speech. King said the law's purpose was to destroy the freedom of collective bargaining. Research shows industries with strong union membership have higher average wages.
"Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer, and there are no civil rights," King said in 1961. "Our weapon is our vote."
Many European and Asian countries have worker-centered labor laws in place of "right to work" laws. For instance, their labor contracts typically have to follow stringent legal rules before firing a worker, and continue to pay workers even after they leave the company.
Union membership declined after King's death
Though legalized segregation has largely disappeared since King's death in 1968, so did union membership. Today, just 10.5% of wage workers belong to unions, half the rate it was in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Even former union leaders say the organizations likely aren't coming back. David Rolf, the labor leader who helped start the Fight for $15 movement, recently said the "old [union] model" is not coming back.
Union membership decline, might be tied to the way work has reorganized over the last 50 years, Rolf said. While the biggest companies used to employ the majority of Americans in the 1930s, today, the gig economy and fissured workplaces have made it so that many employees work for smaller subsidiaries.
"There will be no time machine invented that will give us our great-grandfather's unions of the '30s, or our grandfather's unions of the '50s, or our parents' unions of the '70s" Rolf said at recent a conference in Michigan.
The future of collective bargaining looks bright
Union membership may have declined, but collective bargaining has not.
Non-union grassroots organizations also ramped up organizing in the last few years, as seen by Uber and Lyft driver strikes in New York City.
Plus, some young politicians have brought labor to the focus of policy debate, like New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Whatever form of collective bargaining now exists, King would say labor rights, in addition to racial inequality, was essential achieving a fairer society.
"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," King said in a letter to a laundry workers union in 1962.