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.
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.
Freedom House has found that among advanced industrial democracies, the United States does a very poor job of protecting labor rights. The report declared, "The United States is almost alone among economically advanced democracies in its lack of a strong trade union movement in the private sector," and cited weak penalties for illegal worker discharges as among the causes. Freedom House and other researchers find that our major European competitors – such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom – protect labor rights far more effectively than the United States. In contrast to the low ranking of the United States in protecting labor rights, Freedom House commended the United States for the strength of its civil rights laws.
The result is that workers' wages have plummeted, many have lost any real voice in the workplace, economic security is disappearing and at-will employment has become the norm. Under these conditions, the original goals of the civil rights movement cannot be achieved.
Making labor organizing a civil right would extend the real protections that workers have against race, sex and religious discrimination to workers who seek to exercise their fundamental rights of association and speech in the workplace. Workers who seek to organize or join a union will be made whole if they are discriminated against for their conduct, they will have their stories heard by juries of their peers, and they will be entitled to punitive damages for egregious employer conduct. Such protections will change the calculus of employers who now blithely violate workers' labor rights by making it more expensive to break the rules than follow them.
Workers' share of production has been in a steep decline, at roughly the same rate as labor's decline. Civil rights protections for labor organizing would allow workers to demand more, not just from the federal government, but also from their employers.
Where the March on Washington succeeded in procuring certain political rights, it fell short in procuring the economic rights demanded. Strengthening the long-recognized right to join a union through the self-same civil rights legislation that changed employment practices carries the promise of renewing the great alliance that was represented during the March.
Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and Moshe Z. Marvit, a Century fellow and labor and civil rights attorney, are coauthors of "Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice."
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