Why Labor Rights Should Be a Civil Right

Fifty years after the March on Washington, America's next great task is creating a more just economy.

Attendees visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial as they commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, in Washington D.C.
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Today, the demands made by the quarter of a million people who marched on Washington turn 50 years old. Labor leaders such as A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin worked alongside civil rights organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to demand jobs and freedom because both economic justice and racial justice were viewed as core civil rights. It was commonly asked at the time, "what good would it do to integrate the lunch counter, if we don't have the money to buy a hamburger?"

The freedom demands of the March on Washington are well known, because many were later instituted. They included legislation protecting the right to vote, integration of schools, a guarantee of access to public accommodations, a ban on housing discrimination and civil rights protections in the workplace. However, less remembered are those that concerned economic civil rights, such as federal programs to train and place all unemployed workers in meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages, a raised minimum wage that approximated a living wage and extension of the Fair Labor Standards Act to excluded workers. Fifty years later, poverty-wage workers at fast food restaurants still find themselves holding signs that read, "I Am a Man," and demanding a living wage.

Several years after the March, it became clear that a continued struggle for economic civil rights was necessary. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders of the SCLC pivoted towards the Poor Peoples Campaign and planned a new march on Washington. King described the scope of the new campaign to striking sanitation workers in Memphis the night before he was assassinated, saying, "It didn't cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters. It didn't cost the nation one penny to guarantee the right to vote. The problems that we are facing today will cost the nation billions of dollars." The goal was to create a framework wherein the nation's poor and working class could procure their share of the nation's prosperity.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Though the nation still has a long way to go on the problems of racial justice – especially in the areas of criminal justice and voting rights – it has made far more progress on that front than on the twin front of economic justice. As we remember the unanswered economic demands made in 1963, it is time for a new push for economic civil rights.

Some of this has already begun, with calls for an increased federal minimum wage, protests for a living wage for fast food and big box workers, renewed pushes for domestic workers' bill of rights and a campaign to raise the standards of the "hidden federal workforce" whose work is supported by federal contracts, concession agreements and grants. In addition to these laudable campaigns, we should also demand that labor rights be recognized as civil rights.

Writing labor organizing into our civil rights laws would not only reaffirm the nation's commitment to the idea that workers deserve a voice in the workplace, but it would provide real remedies for a right that has long been recognized, but too often ignored. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act proclaimed that it was "the policy of the United States" to ensure industrial peace "by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aide or protection."

However, those rights have always been weakly guarded, and required independent union strength and employer cooperation in order to work. Both of those have waned precipitously in the past few decades, and labor rights have been robbed of any effective remedy.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Are 'Right-to-Work' Laws Good for States?]