When It Comes to Labor Rights, We're Still Fighting MLK's Battles

Sanitation Strike

The Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral arguments Monday for the most consequential legal case for labor rights in a generation — Janus v. AFSCME. At the heart of the debate is whether public employees truly have the ability to come together to raise their voices in a strong union. Along with coalition partners in the LGBTQ movement, the Human Rights Campaign has filed a friend of the court, or amicus, brief in support of these workers and their right to organize. We know that collective bargaining has been a powerful force for civil rights including for LGBTQ equality.

This year, we mark 50 years since one of the most historic civil and human rights actions of all time — the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike. Spurred to action following the tragic deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were killed on the job, 700 fellow sanitation workers began a months-long strike. They sought fair pay and an end to dangerous working conditions with the support of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. Their bold strike drew civil rights leaders from across the nation, including Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr. and Bayard Rustin among so many others. While most know his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech,  Dr. King lost his life in Memphis fighting for more than 1,300 public sector workers, mostly black men, demanding dignity in the workplace and basic human rights. One of Dr. King’s most trusted advisers was Rustin, the openly gay man and labor organizer who was chief architect of the nonviolence movement,  which laid the foundation for the iconic March on Washington.

The Memphis sanitation workers strike was one of many protests at the intersection of campaigns for racial and economic justice. And as marchers carried signs proclaiming “I Am a Man,” they paved the way for generations of public sector workers — sanitation workers, teachers, social workers, firefighters, health care workers, and more — to come together and  improve their lives and their communities through collective bargaining.

The history of the labor movement is inextricably bound with advances for civil rights and human rights. Labor leaders have been prominent voices in the fight for marriage equality and the ongoing effort to end discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Through collective bargaining, unions have made it possible for LGBTQ workers to secure crucial rights. Union collective bargaining agreements started banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity as early as 1974 — long before those protections were enshrined in state laws. In the absence of clear, guaranteed federal employment protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, these contracts remain critically important.

Let’s not forget that public servants are often the frontline allies of the LGBTQ community — whether it’s the teacher who sponsors an LGBTQ club at their school, the nurse who provides care for a transgender patient, or the social worker who helped this lesbian mom with her adoption so many years ago.

When it comes to fighting for civil rights — for recognition of our humanity and inherent worth — victories are not won by one person alone. They are won by the amplified voices of the many groups who know we are stronger together. They are won when we stand together in our truths and build coalitions across movements. That is why the Human Rights Campaign is proud to stand beside our partners in the labor movement today.

Unions have played a critical role in strengthening and protecting so many American families, including LGBTQ families. Strong unions help working people achieve a level-playing field, gain safety, and be treated fairly on the job. They allow workers  to advocate for others and to be their full selves at work no matter who you are. At the end of the day, Janus v. AFSCME is about whether we weaken or hold firm to the freedoms Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, and the sanitation workers fought for so bravely 50 years ago.

Mary Beth Maxwell
MARY BETH MAXWELL is the senior vice president for programs, research, and training at the Human Rights Campaign.

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