Martin Luther King Jr. once marched alongside black sanitation workers during a now historic strike in Memphis, Tennessee. Labor unions commemorated that protest and the continued fight for economic and racial justice during a rally Wednesday.
King became heavily involved in the civil rights and labor movements during his life. He was killed shortly after marching alongside the sanitation workers on April 4, 1968. I AM 2018 included a rally and conference intended to bridge the past and the present with unions protesting for what they see as social and economic justice.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) once represented the black sanitation workers all those years ago. Now the union is hosting the rally alongside other labor, advocacy, and faith groups like the Church of God in Christ.
“The legacy of Dr. King isn’t just to remember him,” Sen. Bernie Sanders told an enthusiastic crowd during the rally. “The legacy for us is to follow in his footsteps and transform this country. And today we stand for the memory of Dr. King and talk about abolishing poverty in America, we talk about abolishing militarism in American, and we talk about abolishing racism, sexism, and homophobia in America.”
The Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, and Unite Here also helped to organize the rally with members and local union leaders traveling in from across the country to participate. Many arrived in the city days earlier to meet up with other union members and attend the conference.
The protesters started off their morning by attending a rally in Memphis. They then marched through the city before gathering together again for another rally. The rallies included speeches from union presidents, congressmen, celebrities, and musical artists. They discussed issues ranging from worker rights and civil rights.
“On this day we honor Dr. King,” AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Elissa McBride said during the rally. “We reaffirm the humanity and dignity of all work. We are not going backwards. We are going onwards.”
Labor unions argue they are essential to defending worker rights. That includes policies that bolster their own membership and influence as a way to provide workers a stronger advocate and voice. But there is plenty of debate with critics arguing that laws should support choice instead of encouraging or forcing union membership.
President Donald Trump won the election with strong support from the working class despite advocating for policies unions despise, like right-to-work. Some speakers at the rally expressed opposition to the president and his administration. The rally also served as a call for action with the midterm elections in sight.
“When your gas tank is low you go and fill up at the gas station,” Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said during the rally. “We’re filling our gas tank with moral fuel. We are making sure that we energize ourselves–that we understand his legacy, that we understand the challenges that lay ahead.”
Some speakers also denounced a lawsuit that has the potential to end all mandatory dues in the public-sector. AFSCME was sued by state workers who argue mandatory union payments violate their constitutional rights. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case sometime around June.
“If we are going to win in the labor movement, we need to be a part of other movements,” United Steelworkers Vice President Fred Redmond told the crowd. “We need to stick together and there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.”
The events this week also represented the start of a new project also called I AM 2018. The conference earlier in the week included training sessions for activists. It is aimed at taking the lessons learned from civil rights era protests and applying them to the current struggle for racial and economic justice.