AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond delivered the following remarks as prepared to the 2023 AFL-CIO Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil and Human Rights Conference.
Good evening brothers and sisters. Thank you for spending your holiday weekend with us.
Thank you to Clayola [Brown] and Civil and Human Rights and meetings and travel and everybody whose hard work is making this weekend happen.
And thank you Liz [Shuler]. You’re a terrific leader and I couldn’t have asked for a better partner. You have shown us time and time again why you are the right person to be at the helm of the labor movement.
President Shuler is union from the top of her head to bottom of her feet and she’s making sure everything we do puts workers of color and women at the center.
That’s not just talk. She walks the walk and is making sure everybody is walking with her.
Under her leadership, the AFL-CIO has recommitted ourselves to standing together with our friends and allies in the civil rights and social justice movements. Because we’re stronger together, and our shared missions of justice, fairness, and opportunity for all people, especially those in underserved communities, are uniquely connected.
When labor and civil rights work together, we can be that mighty force for change that Dr. King spoke about.
That’s the legacy of Dr. King. That’s why we’re here. To be that mighty force for change.
But as Liz said, that wasn’t always the case. Labor’s support for the 1963 March on Washington was lacking. Many unions back then didn’t fully appreciate or address the issues of workers of color and women faced in the workplace.
Unions set up councils and caucuses to address these issues but for a number of unions, it was just window dressing – a means to appear as if we were doing something to address the issues.
In 1963, white labor leaders offering true support to the civil rights movement were few and far between. They withheld critical financial support, which meant there was a real possibility the March on Washington wouldn’t happen.
In 1963, Dr. King asked George Meany – the president of the AFL-CIO at the time – for financial support of the March on Washington. He made a plea and was denied.
Dr. King had made his connection to our movement known time and time again. In fact, when he addressed the AFL-CIO convention in Florida two years prior, he said that the two most effective voices for social and economic justice are the labor movement and the civil rights movement. Dr. King made an appeal for our two movements to join together to lift up the concerns of workers and those who have been disrespected, disinherited, disenfranchised in our communities.
But his call went unanswered. Let us answer that call today. Because his concerns remain.
Workers are still being disrespected. Workers are still being disinherited. Workers are still being disenfranchised.
These issues don’t just affect their lives in the workplace. These concerns deepen inequality everywhere, in every aspect of life.
And places where workers don’t feel valued or respected are a fertile environment for misinformation and disinformation to seed hate and fascist ideology.
And when those hateful feelings are fomented, they put our very democracy at risk. They lead to policies of voter suppression designed to take away the very tools that give us a voice in who governs us.
Dr. King knew that. That’s why he knew that it would take both movements – the labor and civil rights movements -- working as one, to create true opportunity, true equality, true democracy.
He knew a good union job protected workers from discrimination, and that union workers had higher wages, health care, safer jobs.
He knew a good union job was often the first step in generating wealth and creating economic power. It made the difference for folks who had little opportunity … it allowed them to buy a home and save for retirement and give their kids a start with a solid footing.
One by one those jobs supported and lifted up communities all across the country.
A good union job was often the first step in reversing an unequal system that has caused generations of damage.
And I say the first step because that economic power also translated into political power. At the ballot box and on Capitol Hill. It gave people a voice at work and in our nation.
That’s why Dr. King worked so hard to bring together the civil rights and labor movements.
As President Shuler mentioned, this year marks the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington. Leading up to that march, in June of 1963, Dr. King went to Detroit where he joined other civil rights and labor leaders.
There he spoke out against segregation and the brutal attacks of civil rights activists in the South. And about the challenges Black workers faced in Detroit and other cities in the North: inequality in hiring practices, wages, education, and housing. And about how the civil rights bill wasn’t “going to get through if we don’t put some work in it and some determined pressure.”
People packed into Cobo Hall to hear him say that today’s march – where 125,000 people flooded the streets of downtown Detroit – was “the largest and greatest demonstration for freedom ever held in the United States.” What they didn’t know was that they were watching a version of the speech he would write into the pages of history two months later in front of the Lincoln Memorial. That he was starting an unrelenting drum beat driving the marchers to Washington.
A few days after the march in Detroit, King said it was “clear that the masses of people are with this movement.”
But he warned that “it’s your moment of greatest heights that could also be the beginning of your undoing.”
What does that mean for us today?
Unions have never been as popular in recent history as they are now.
The Black Lives Matter movement has galvanized us like never before.
In the face of attacks on our voting rights and our very democracy across the United States and especially in the South, millions of people are enduring the long lines and extra steps meant to dissuade us from casting a ballot – meant to prevent us from exercising our right to vote.
We have an opportunity before us we cannot miss out on.
We have the momentum. The masses are with this movement. We can’t afford to ease up. Let’s keep up the determined pressure. To advance civil and human rights. To advance social and economic justice.
Together. The labor movement and civil rights movement working as one. That’s the legacy of Dr. King. That’s why we’re here this weekend.
And it is our job to contribute to that legacy. To answer his call.
Let’s stay connected. Let’s stay committed. And let’s build a society that is fair and just for all.