On the eve of his assassination 41 years ago this month, Martin Luther King Jr. marched with striking Memphis sanitation workers because he understood that workers rights are civil rights.
Fighting for the belief that all Americans deserve fair pay and decent treatment for a hard day’s work, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and our member organizations — including civil rights stalwarts like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — have also long recognized that the right to organize is a civil rights issue of the first magnitude. The right to form a union remains critical to allowing African-Americans, along with other people of color, a real chance to achieve economic opportunity and middle-class status.
So we are just as committed to that issue now as King was during the final moments of his life. That’s why the Employee Free Choice Act is one of the civil rights movement’s highest priorities.
The Employee Free Choice Act has been largely written about as a labor bill, but those of us in the civil rights community know that it is so much more. From generation to generation, by organizing unions, working Americans have turned entire occupations into sources of middle-class incomes, secure benefits and opportunities for upward mobility. This is true for Americans from every background, but especially for African-Americans and other people of color.
Decades ago, black auto, steel and postal workers and sleeping car porters — all members of unions — were economic, social and political pillars of their communities. Today, the same is true of African-American teachers, government workers and telecommunication workers who also belong to unions. They, as much as can be said of anyone in this uncertain economy, enjoy a measure of middle-class security.
According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, on average African-American union members earn 12 percent more in pay than their nonunion counterparts, are 16 percent more likely to have employer-provided health insurance, and 19 percent more likely to have a pension than nonunion workers.
As A. Philip Randolph, one of the founders of the leadership conference, used to say, “The two tickets for full equality for African-Americans have been the voter registration card and the union card. The first card allows all Americans to choose better leaders. The second card allows all Americans to choose a better life.— That’s why the Employee Free Choice Act is so vital not only to preserving the gains of middle-class African-American workers, but also to expanding opportunities for African-American workers in the lowest-paying jobs.
Not only do African-Americans stand to benefit from policies that protect the right to form unions, but so do all Americans, including our friends in the Latino community. Latino workers earn, on average, 17.6 percent more than their nonunion peers, are 26 percent more likely to have health coverage and are 27 percent more likely to have a pension than Latino workers not in unions. Those numbers make a real difference for working men and women struggling to provide for their families and make ends meet.
In this tough economic recession, when all Americans are carrying its burden, the Employee Free Choice Act will empower workers to join and organize unions, so they can bargain for better wages, health care and job security, and ultimately take their place in the great American middle class. Our labor policies should also promote the success and expansion of American businesses — certainly including minority-owned businesses. But protecting the right to organize will not harm businesses. It will put real money into the hands of working families, helping both workers and companies. The stimulus potential of this bill is beyond debate.
Beyond the financial and economic benefits the Employee Free Choice Act will provide, it will also bring back justice in the workplace. The legislation will give employees, not their bosses, the ability to decide which method they prefer in forming a union. It will also toughen penalties on employers who repeatedly violate the law by intimidating and even firing workers for their support of a union.
Deep support within the African-American and civil rights community for the Employee Free Choice Act exists for these and many other reasons. That’s why so many civil rights groups, including more than 140 grass-roots organizations, are supporting this vital legislation. Lawmakers now have the opportunity to exercise the courage King exemplified so many years ago by making this bill the law of the land.
Wade Henderson is president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.