On MLK Day, Remember: Workers’ Rights Are Civil Rights

Your Take: AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka on King’s legacy.

Martin Luther King Jr., Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington
Martin Luther King Jr., Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington AFP/Getty Images

Half a century ago, thousands upon thousands of people from all across this country gathered in Washington, D.C. We all know this story—it was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was there that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. uttered his famous words, “I have a dream.”

That speech and that march fundamentally changed America. They helped transform our democracy by exposing comfortable Americans to the truth that a grave wrong was being done. And that call for justice altered the landscape of the American mind. That change has been felt in America every day over the decades since, and it is at least partially responsible for clearing a path for Barack Obama to become president of the United States.

King championed the workers’ cause. So much so that even on his last day on Earth he was organizing black sanitation workers in Memphis who were on strike for wage increases and union recognition.

And in less than two weeks, when I listen to President Obama’s State of the Union address, I’ll be paying close attention to anything that signals a renewed focus for our working-class families. I want to hear about a new push for big changes to make meaningful gains possible in the lives of everyone. 

I want to hear about increases in the minimum wage, lowering unemployment rates by investing and creating good jobs, a plan on comprehensive immigration reform, protecting voting rights and other measures to strengthen this great country.

But before we even address these goals we must immediately take action to extend unemployment insurance for the millions of Americans who want to work but cannot find a job. Because Dr. King went beyond the dream he had on that hot summer day in 1963, and he turned those dreams into action.

The first action is that we continue to fight to ensure everyone has the right to vote. This is crucial to working people. Nothing builds our communities like working together, not only to elect candidates who support us, but to make sure that everyone can actualize their right to vote.

The second action is to help more than 11 million people come out of the shadows. They cannot do that until Congress passes a comprehensive immigration reform bill with a path to citizenship. The system is broken, and U.S.-born workers as well as aspiring citizens are paying a heavy price for it. America needs to create an immigration system that works for working people—not a system that benefits corporations at the expense of everyone else. What happened last year in Congress should not happen again.