Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee while fighting for the rights of sanitation workers. Indeed, MLK Jr. was a strong advocate for the rights of workers to organize unions, demanding in his final years that the country recognize its working poor. He even equated anti-labor voices with racism, once proclaiming “the labor-hater and labor-baiter is always a twin-headed creature, spewing anti-negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from other mouth.” 

James Walsh

The sanitation workers whom King was fighting for in 1968 were public employees who were engaged in an intense strike, demanding to be treated as human beings and to have their union recognized. At the time, public employees in Tennessee could not legally strike.

The triumph of that story was the municipal government formally recognizing the sanitation workers’ union, and the momentum that this gave to public employees everywhere. They won the right to have their union recognized and the right to strike. It took an illegal strike to win the right to strike.

Think about that in the context of current debates in Colorado over the collective bargaining rights of public employees, and various versions of bills that eventually may be taken up for consideration. 

American labor history is filled with struggles for fair wages, benefits, and safer working conditions. Beyond these important issues, however, is the basic demand, resonating through centuries of exploitation, that workers have the right to speak with a collective voice and to have their union recognized by their employers.

Union recognition is inextricably tied to human dignity, to the struggle to be seen by one’s employer, and to have a voice in policies and decisions that directly impact the workplace. Without this collective voice, workers are easily divided and left to the whims of those who have power over them.

In Colorado, this story has been replayed over and over, from 19th century Leadville where immigrant workers formed some of the first statewide unions; to Ludlow, where immigrant coal miners and their families lived through a Colorado winter in a tent camp, only to see women and children murdered by members of the Colorado National Guard; to the 1920 strike of Denver tramway workers; the United Farm Workers during the 1960s and 70s; and most recently, custodians at DIA, baristas and bakers in Boulder, and King Soopers workers.

All of this historical trajectory has one common theme:  the need for workers to speak with one voice and to have that voice recognized by those who control the product of their labor. This is the central meaning of labor unions; beyond all of the anti-labor propaganda lies this basic concept of dignity, respect, and the right to speak as a collective voice and to go on strike if needed. 

Currently, with the exception of very limited groups of public workers in specific locations, public-sector workers are free to organize a union, but their employers have no obligation to recognize or to bargain with that union. A union without collective bargaining rights denies workers their most precious and fundamental right: to sit across a table as equals with their employer and have their voices heard.

As a labor studies scholar, I have always been fascinated at the extent to which so many anti-union voices — from municipal associations to manufacturer associations, to chambers of commerce—are themselves unions in that they speak with a collective voice and fully understand that their power and influence emanates from this collective voice; while at the same time denouncing the rights of workers to form their own collective voice.

Who should have the power to decide if certain workers have the right to form a union? This is a decision that only workers themselves should be able to make. 

The right to form a union and to bargain over the conditions and compensation of one’s work has been solidified in American society for nearly a century. This is not a decision for local municipalities, but a right that hundreds of workers died for. This is the ground upon which the Ludlow Massacre memorial was constructed, and the ground that Martin Luther King Jr. died upon.

As with all workers’-rights legislation, we will need to fight to ensure that any proposed bill speaks to the needs of public employees today. It should ban intimidation tactics that are commonly used toward organizers and union leaders, solidify the rights of public workers to strike, and allow our public employees to bargain over any and all issues related to compensation, benefits, and working conditions. 

Let’s not forget that unions matter. Organized workers are paid more, offered better healthcare, have better retirement options, enjoy safer working conditions, and participate in a more dignified relationship by every metric, than their unorganized colleagues. Unions are also increasingly bargaining not simply for better pay and conditions, but for the common good in their larger communities.

The Covid-19 pandemic has contributed to a new consciousness among workers locally, nationally, and internationally. Workers are recognizing their strength and the great injustice of low wages and wealth gaps that define the 21st century economy. An organized workforce benefits everyone and leads to a healthier and more secure civic life.

For the first time in many decades, the general public recognizes the value of unions. King Soopers workers felt this public support. DIA custodians felt this support. Colorado has an opportunity to take a leadership role in empowering workers, thanking them for their vital labor through difficult times, and declaring, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., that “all labor has dignity.”

James Walsh, of Denver, is a clinical associate professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Colorado Denver, where he has taught for the past 24 years. He is a member of United Campus Workers Colorado—CWA Local 7799.

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