Forty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood in Memphis before striking sanitation workers and described what the struggle against starvation wages, the struggle for justice and the struggle for equality meant for America’s present and future. He had come to Memphis to support the sanitation workers who were struggling to get a union. King knew an economic struggle for equality was key to the success of the civil rights movement. In 1961, he told the AFL-CIO convention that “when the Negro wins, labor wins.” That is just as true now as then.
Since King’s death, we’ve seen the Civil Rights Act implemented, schools desegregated and a march toward equality. There’s no question that America in 2008 is in a whole different place for racial equality than when King was shot in 1968. Yet we have a long way to go to achieve King’s dream of equality. Today’s generation faces new struggles for social justice and economic equality. And while a less-than-fair economy impacts all working people struggling to make ends meet, people of color are particularly hard hit.
Look at health care. Forty seven million Americans are without health care coverage. That number doesn’t even include the number of Americans underinsured, those who have health insurance but still can’t get the medical help they need.
Among African Americans, the news is worse. African Americans are more than twice as likely to die of diabetes and 25 percent more likely to die of cancer than white Americans. And President Bush’s repeated vetoes of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) is even more offensive when we consider this: African Americans are more likely to be covered through public health insurance programs like SCHIP.
Meanwhile, the economy is simply not working. In poll after poll, people cite it as their number one concern—above even the war in Iraq. And it’s no wonder. Household income is down almost one thousand dollars since 2000.
In another example of massive economic inequality among races, according to the Census Bureau, the average African American household income was twenty thousand dollars less than white households. There is a 27 percent gap between African Americans and whites in home ownership. And now the mortgage crisis not only makes it difficult to buy a house, but to keep one too.
On the other side of the economic fence, the ultra rich and corporate elite are doing just fine. In 2006, CEO pay skyrocketed to 364 times that of the average worker—by far the largest gap in the industrialized world. Four of the largest U.S. financial institutions just doled out their end of the year bonuses—a whopping $29.8 billion. And that’s just the bonus!
Good jobs are few and far between these days. Yet working people don’t have the opportunity to improve their lives by joining unions, even though union workers earn 30 percent more than their non union counterparts.
The union wage benefit is even greater for minorities and women. Union women earn 31 percent more than nonunion women, African American union members earn 36 percent more than their nonunion counterparts and for Latino workers, the union advantage equals 46 percent. The union advantage does not stop at wages. Eighty percent of union workers in the private sector had jobs with employer—provided health insurance, compared with only 49 percent of nonunion workers. Sixty-eight percent of union workers have defined-benefit pension plans, compared with 14 percent of nonunion workers.
Sixty million people say they would join a union today if they could. Too few get the chance because employers routinely violate workers’ freedom to form unions. Corporate and establishment resistance today is even greater than what those sanitation workers faced 40 years ago. One in four union activists is fired for exercising his or her freedom to form a union. If we are to give working people the chance to get ahead, Congress needs to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that will help workers who are trying to form unions.
To commemorate the 40 years since Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, union and civil rights activists gathered in Memphis to plan next steps to combat economic inequalities and celebrate the life of one of the leaders who made it possible. “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars,” King said on that fateful day in Memphis. We see the stars today. African Americans and our brothers and sisters of every color of the rainbow are coming together to declare that America is not working and standing up to fix it.
Arlene Holt Baker is the newly elected Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO. She is the first African American to hold the position.