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May 2018

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Remembering Dr. King's Labor Legacy

Last month, I had the privilege to be in Memphis, Tenn., to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Outside of the labor movement, many people forget why Dr. King was there in the first place: to support striking sanitation workers who were fed up with meager pay, unsafe working conditions and sick and tired of being treated like animals by the city.

You see, Dr. King was a great leader for racial equality, but he understood that civil rights were intertwined with workers' rights. He knew that racial justice and economic fairness went hand-in-hand.

And he saw the labor movement as a critical tool in helping to achieve both.

"The labor movement," he once wrote, "was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress." He'd seen labor's success in standing up to all-powerful corporations, using collective power to achieve the seemingly impossible. And he envisioned the same collective action lifting people of color out of despair and into hope.

Fifty years later, his lessons are backed up by the facts.

While we still have a ways to go to achieve true equality, within the labor movement, unions help to erase much of the racial and gender pay gaps you see in other workplaces. Union membership boosts the wages of black workers by nearly 17 percent and increases their chances of having health insurance and retirement plans by even more. Unions also cut the pay gap between men and women by more than 70 percent.

Those are numbers to be proud of.

I'm also proud that right there in Memphis, we're proving that organizing in the South isn't some forgotten relic of the past.

Last year, more than 700 new IBEW brothers and sisters joined our ranks at the Electrolux plant in Memphis, just a few miles from where the striking sanitation workers made their stand 50 years ago. It was a huge victory for those folks who risked a lot to stand up for themselves and for one another.

I think Dr. King would be proud of that legacy. He'd have been proud that the labor movement — which wasn't always the most inclusive bunch — is doing its part to help erase the economic barriers that are still far too prevalent in the U.S., organizing people of every race and gender into its ranks, providing them with the tools for a better life and more dignity at work.

This isn't to say we don't have a lot of work left to do. But the more we organize, the more we extend the opportunities we've been so fortunate to have through this Brotherhood to everyone in search of a voice at work, the better, more equitable society we'll help to create.

That's the mission of the IBEW, and it's one I'm honored to lead.


Also: Cooper: A Rigged System Read Cooper's Column

Lonnie R. Stephenson

Lonnie R. Stephenson
International President