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MLK Day is Our Day

This holiday embodies all that unions stand for, and the AFL-CIO in their blog showed us exactly how they backed the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Kris LaGrange's picture
Jan 15, 2018

All movements derive from the union movement. The will and desire to be treated fairly and have access to opportunity and progress is almost the sole mission of all social, economic and progressive groups and organizations. I think that’s why labor and civil rights are synonymous and over the years gay rights and women’s rights have earned a seat at that very same table. These causes force us all to ask the question: Do employers treat this person differently because of the way they look. In the year 2016, Black Lives Matters has asked us to again question the progress of race relations. The discomfort that Black Lives Matters exposes in certain people is proof positive that Dr. King’s life’s work is still unfinished. Racism is alive and well in the United States. The choice candidate of the Ku Klux Klan was elected President and the gender pay gap and pay gap is the largest its ever been in history.

What the AFL-CIO did in their blog is an excellent look into the historic relationship between George Meaney and Martin Luther King, Jr. Meaney brought the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) together way back in 1955. He helped guide pension funds to socially responsible investors based on Dr. King's suggestions and the AFL-CIO and its affiliates funded Kings Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The AFL-CIO backed their voter registration efforts and bailed out striking civil rights protesters. In addition, the AFL-CIO lent their political muscle to help pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Unionist organized their ranks and joined Catholics in marching on DC, bearing witness to Dr. Kings famous “I have a Dream” speech.

MLK Day is a proud day for progressives and is not just a celebration of the life and legacy of one man who gave the ultimate sacrifice for equality and equal opportunity for all but MLK Day is a day in which unions and their leadership take pride in knowing that when others talk, organized labor, through their funds and missions, puts Dr. King's vision into reality.


Beginning in 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then-President George Meany of the AFL-CIO began a relationship that would help bring the labor and civil rights movements together with a combined focus on social and economic justice.

Meany was an outspoken defender of individual freedom, and in March 1960, he emphasized the crucial link between the union and the civil rights movements. He told an AFL-CIO gathering, "What we want for ourselves, we want for all humanity." Meany met with King to privately discuss how they could work together. King proposed that the AFL-CIO invest pension assets in housing, to help lessen economic inequality. The AFL-CIO then established the Investment Department in August 1960 to guide union pension funds to be socially responsible investors.

The next year, King spoke to the AFL-CIO Executive Council, comparing what labor had achieved to what the civil rights movement wanted to accomplish: "We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us. They resent our will to organize. They are shocked that active organizations, sit-ins, civil disobedience, and protests are becoming everyday tools just as strikes, demonstrations, and union organizations became yours to insure that bargaining power genuinely existed on both sides of the table." At the AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention later that year, Meany made civil rights a prominent item on the agenda, and King spoke to the delegates about uniting the two movements through a common agenda, noting that African Americans are "almost entirely a working people."

Not only did the AFL-CIO provide much-needed capital to the civil rights movement, but numerous affiliates did as well. Several combined to give more than $100,000 to King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The UAW directly funded voter registration drives in predominantly African American areas throughout the South and paid bail money for jailed protesters. Meany and the AFL-CIO also used their considerable political influence in helping to shape the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Union activists were a key part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as well. The Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO endorsed the march, as did 11 international unions and several state and local labor councils. A. Philip Randolph, then-president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was a key organizer of the event. UAW President Walter Reuther was a speaker at the march, condemning the fact that African Americans were treated as second-class economic citizens.

King's final act in pursuit of social and economic justice was in support of the sanitation strike in Memphis, Tennessee. After his death, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson sent the undersecretary of labor to settle the strike, and the city acceded to the demands of the working people, leading to the creation of AFSCME Local 1733, which still represents sanitation workers in Memphis.

In 1964, Meany sent a letter to all AFL-CIO affiliates outlining a new pathway that would directly support housing construction and homeownership. In 1965, the Investment Department helped establish the Mortgage Investment Trust, which was the formal embodiment of the socially responsible investment plan and gave a boost to badly needed affordable housing construction. In 1984, the Mortgage Investment Trust was replaced by the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, one of the first socially responsible investment funds in the United States. Since it was created, the HIT has grown to more than $4.5 billion in net assets and has helped finance more than 100,000 affordable housing units and helped create tens of thousands of union jobs. 

The partnership between civil rights and labor, launched by King and Meany, has helped the country make great strides in the intervening years. Thanks to these two leaders, the partnership continues to this day.

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