Honoring MLK’s Fight for Worker’s Rights

As long as the people have had a voice, we have advocated for family-sustaining wages, safe working conditions, and many “benefits” that most of us now take for granted, like 40-hour workweeks.

Modern social justice advocates also call for equal access to interesting or fulfilling work for all employees, and equitable pay based on work qualifications, not gender or cultural background.

Current public discussions about the prevalence of sexual harassment in United States business shed light on the consequences of workplaces that are not respectful or inclusive.

Civil Rights leader Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his contemporaries knew that employment was a social justice issue. Dr. King’s final days were spent in Memphis, TN, supporting Black garbage workers striking over unsafe work conditions, racial discrimination and low wages.

In March 1963, Dr. King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The purpose of the March was to call attention to the congressional Civil Right Bill, and ask for a higher national minimum wage, and an end to racial discrimination in public and private hiring. More than 50 years later, we are still struggling with these issues.

The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s-60s was not the first time the U.S. saw a connection between employment and societal conditions.

A few years ago, I visited San Antonio, TX, for the National Career Development Association conference. One afternoon, I took a walk to find The Alamo. On my way, I stopped to get a closer look at a strange statue of a man surrounded by a crowd of people. The figure is of Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor (now the AFL-CIO). Gompers died in San Antonio in 1924.

The statue depicts Gompers speaking to a group of workers. Apparently, the odd-looking statue caused a minor controversy in the city. What was most interesting to me was the quote from Gompers on the base of the statue.

“What does labor want? …
We want more schoolhouses and less jails,
More books and less guns,
More learning and less vice,
More leisure and less greed,
More justice and less revenge.
We want more … opportunities to cultivate our better natures.”
~ Samuel Gompers (1850 – 1924)

Again, the issues that Gompers and union workers were fighting for 100 years ago we are still struggling with today. These are the same issues that Dr. King and the civil rights workers were fighting for 50 years ago.

Employment is a social justice issue.

As career coach I honor Dr. King’s legacy — and the memory of countless other civil rights and employment advocates — by reflecting on the role I play in helping students and job seekers gain access to livable wage and fulfilling employment.

Employment is a social justice issue. Do you recognize your role in the movement?