On the eve of his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis, Tenn., to speak to sanitation workers on strike for better wages and workplace safety.
Dr. King understood that the movement for equal rights would need to stand together with the movement for workers’ dignity if either were to survive. The civil rights leader’s dream is still far from reality.
The gap between rich and poor is widening and racial inequalities deepened during the economic crash. But we believe Dr. King would be proud if he were alive on Labor Day today to see the partnerships emerging between community groups fighting for social justice and labor unions fighting for a fair economy.
Last year, California bucked the national trend of declining union membership with organized labor growing by 100,000 new members. While unions have been criticized for being too male, pale and stale, their success in the Golden State is the product of an inclusive and innovative labor movement ready to take on the 21st century economy.
Union membership is rising here because people of color, particularly Latinos, are embracing the power of worker solidarity and unions are rapidly growing in predominantly female sectors like nursing.
Once, organized labor found itself at odds with immigrants’ rights and environmental advocates. Today, unions are at the forefront of immigration reform efforts and are pushing for green technology investments that create middle-class jobs.
Unions are also working hand in hand with other organizations at an unprecedented scale, broadening the base of the labor movement beyond union members themselves. Labor opened its doors to nontraditional worker centers bringing together day laborers, domestic workers, restaurant workers and others in high-poverty, immigrant-heavy industries.
Recently, workers at Walmart stores and fast-food restaurants across the country made history by going on strike, a brave display of resistance to some of the most anti-union corporations in America.
If anyone held doubts that California’s labor movement is operating at a new level, the 2012 election laid them to rest. Community organizations and unions built a powerful electoral coalition to turn around the decades-long slide toward widening income inequality and budget cuts to schools and other public services.
Last November, this coalition won big by passing Proposition 30 and defeating Proposition 32 with a monumental grass-roots push to get out the vote.
Here in Ventura County, Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, or CAUSE, partnered with our labor allies like SEIU Local 721, UFCW Local 770 and the California Federation of Teachers, as well as other community groups like Future Leaders of America and One Step a la Vez to empower a diverse electorate of working-class, immigrant and young voters, talking to tens of thousands about Propositions 30 and 32.
This fall, for the first time in years, local students and teachers are returning to school without being met with rising class sizes and pink slips. It took community and labor working side by side to see a balanced budget beginning to restore the devastating cuts to public education.
Election Day 2012 also featured inspiring collaborations between unions and community groups that raised living standards for California families by passing a minimum-wage increase in San Jose and a living wage for hotel workers in Long Beach.
However, the struggle for social and economic justice does not stop when the polls close. Nonprofits and unions must work together outside of elections.
For example, CAUSE is working alongside the Tri-Counties Building and Construction Trades Council to advocate for community benefits agreements on publicly funded projects.
These contracts hold developers who profit from public dollars accountable to creating tangible benefits in the community. This can include hiring locally in communities hit hard by unemployment, guaranteeing family-supporting wages and benefits, and supporting public needs like affordable housing and open space.
This Labor Day, the labor movement truly stands at a crossroad. Down one path is continued decline and obscurity for unions, resulting in a further shrinking middle-class and falling social mobility. Down another is a dynamic and diverse labor movement that builds bridges with community partners around our common struggle for human dignity.
As always, the road to the future goes through California.