Recently, race has taken center stage in our nation’s discourse. George Zimmerman’s acquittal, the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights decisions and the bankruptcy of Detroit are among the events that are inextricably tied to our nation’s relationship with its people of color. Our nation’s troubled history with its non-white citizens is central to its long journey to democracy and economic equality. In that respect, it is instructive that our nation’s first African-American president, in recent comments on widening economic disparities, has linked racial equality to economic equality.
“Racial tensions won’t get better,” President Barack Obama said in a recent New York Times interview. “They may get worse, because people will feel as if they’ve got to compete with some other group to get scraps from a shrinking pot.”
Our nation’s economic ills are well documented. The gains that were made between the end of World War II and the late 1970s were reversed as tax rates on the richest and most powerful were slashed; corporations were permitted to move capital and jobs abroad; workers’ rights were eroded and unions were crushed.
During the Times interview, Obama, to underscore his message, referenced the historic Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. He pointed out that the official name of the action was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” In addition to calling for civil and voting rights, fair housing and integrated education, organizers of the action demanded a federal jobs program and a national minimum wage of over $13 an hour in today’s dollars.
The march’s key convener, A. Philip Randolph, then-president of the Negro American Labor Council, said at the event: “We have no future in a society in which 6 million Black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty. Nor is the goal of our civil rights revolution merely the passage of civil rights legislation. Yes, we want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them. Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practice Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of million of workers, Black and white?”
Randolph, chief organizer Bayard Rusting, King and the other leaders made the point that all Americans were knitted to the same social fabric and that the demands of the march would benefit not just working and poor people, but the nation as a whole.
That is just as true today. Full democracy and social and economic equality are indivisible from racial equality. For example, those who advocate and profit from “Stand Your Ground” laws also promote and finance anti-union right-to-work laws. They are the same forces that push voter ID and anti-immigrant legislation. They seek to outlaw reproductive rights. They are the slashers of funding for education, health care, Social Security and the entire social safety net. They are responsible for shuttering health care institutions in underserved neighborhoods.
Today, just as in 1963, we require a united movement of the 99 percent to turn back their offensive. Unions are an essential component of that movement. In King’s last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” he described that role: “Negroes make up nearly 20 percent of the organized work force, although they are only 10 percent of the general population. This potential strength is magnified further by the fact of their unity with millions of white workers in those occupations.”
While acknowledging that race prejudice continued to exist, King also emphasized how the work and union setting provided a corrective environment: “It [racist practices] would not flourish as it does in a neighborhood with nothing to inhibit it but morbid observers looking for thrills. In the shop, the union officials from highest to lowest levels would be immediately involved, for internal discord is no academic matter; it weakens the union in its contest with the employers. Therefore, an important self-interest motivates harmonious race relations.”
Unions are one of our most essential and effective training grounds for united action by diverse individuals. In the spirit of the March on Washington, 1199ers have been marching with a diverse group of sisters and brothers during Moral Mondays for justice and equality in North Carolina. Likewise, hundreds of 1199SEIU members of diverse races and nationalities will be in Washington on Aug. 24 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
We can pay no greater tribute to the 1963 pioneers who demanded jobs and freedom than by continuing the march until we are able to transform their demands into our nation’s reality.