MLK had deep ties to labor

Dr. King knew value of the labor movement

Jennifer Muir- Published in O.C. Register January 15

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is Monday. While almost everyone knows about Dr. King’s civil rights efforts, far fewer are aware of his unwavering support for the labor movement. His own words, speaking to the AFL-CIO on Dec. 11, 1961, describe the history that fueled his commitment:

“Less than a century ago the laborer had no rights, little or no respect, and led a life that was socially submerged and barred. … American industry organized misery into sweatshops and proclaimed the right of capital to act without restraints and without conscience. The inspiring answer to this intolerable and dehumanizing existence was economic organization through trade unions. The worker became determined not to wait for charitable impulses to grow in his employer. … History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.”

Dr. King’s words resonated this week as the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. That case seeks to set aside nearly four decades of Supreme Court precedent by prohibiting public sector labor unions from requiring nonmembers to pay their fair share of the cost of representation.

It has long been the law that a union in the public sector must represent all employees, members and nonmembers alike, and cannot discriminate against nonmembers. Further, no person can be compelled to join a union. Nor can an employee be required to pay for a union’s political efforts.

To be clear, employees, like the plaintiffs in Friedrichs, are already free not to join the union. They already receive all the employment-related benefits negotiated by the union and are entitled to full representation, just like union members. And they already are free to refuse to pay for the union’s political activity.

But that’s not enough for the plaintiffs. And it’s definitely not enough for those extremists actually behind this case and providing the resources to pursue it. For the plaintiffs, the outcome they seek would allow them to become free riders, receiving the benefits of union membership without paying for it, shifting the entire cost onto their co-workers. For those financing this case, they won’t be satisfied until they have destroyed public sector unions.

It’s a core conservative value that you shouldn’t be able to get something for nothing. It’s also a core conservative value that you shouldn’t shift your obligations onto the backs of your neighbors. Yet many conservatives are prepared to disregard those core values in order to justify an anti-labor outcome in the Friedrichs case, creating a so-called “right to work” environment throughout our nation.

In that same 1961 speech, Dr. King spoke directly to the threat posed today by Friedrichs:

“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and our job rights. It is supported by Southern segregationists who are trying to keep us from achieving our civil rights and our right of equal opportunity. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone. … Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us.”

This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let us hope and pray that the Supreme Court justices who will decide Friedrichs use history, and Dr. King’s words, as their guides.

Jennifer Muir is general manager, Orange County Employees Association.