Speech | Civil Rights

Shuler: The Labor Movement Is Committed to Racial Justice

Today, we celebrate the life, the leadership, the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We reflect on how organized labor used our collective voices and actions within the civil rights movement, mobilized the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and championed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

We recognize the work so many of you have done over the decades to stand up to racism in systems of justice and politics—our workplaces and economies.

Through visionary clarity, working people of color have taken the AFL-CIO to task, and made the labor movement stronger.

And this is my promise to you as president—with Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond and Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre as my partners—the AFL-CIO is committed to racial justice.

We are speaking the truth, including about ourselves—having difficult conversations and pushing beyond our comfort zones.

We are looking at everything we do through a lens of racial justice and racial equity.

And we know we have more work to do to honor and build upon the work you’ve already done.

Movements are happening around us.

Black Lives Matter, Say their Names, demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many more.

The Me Too movement—Tarana Burke founded the Me Too movement with two words, and she inspired a nationwide response to stand up against the abuse of power.

She gets it. She said it’s about “labor rights and protecting workers. That point can’t be over-emphasized.”

And the climate protests we’re seeing—we have to learn from these movements and the rising generation leading them with their passion and creativity.

We want to be nimble, responsive and relevant.

We want those young people to see us as a uniting force for transformation and progress.

Gen Z and Millennials aren’t fluent in labor jargon—most have never even been to a bargaining table—and most probably don’t even know what a pension is.

But they believe in organizing—in the power of collective action.

We can connect movements, grow collaboration, and build momentum, together.

Our battles are the same, our dreams for the future are the same, and we will rise together because of our unity of purpose, our shared commitment to an equitable future for everyone.

The labor movement and the racial justice movement stand together, arm in arm.

Because the labor movement is not some narrow, outside interest group. We are an intersectional movement.

And the path forward for racial justice and gender equity—for environmental justice for communities of color—for young people who are hungry to change the structural barriers that built the unequal world they inherited—runs through the labor movement.

The labor movement can be the most powerful vehicle for progress in our country— only if we are joined together, the most diverse and inclusive movement in history.

Dr. King himself demanded this inclusivity from us when he spoke to the 1961 AFL-CIO convention, he challenged us when he said, “Together, we can be architects of democracy.”

We are bringing together movements and people of all backgrounds:
—to grow political participation for all people;
—to expand economic power for all people;
—to make democracy work for all people.

That’s the critical point I want to make about democracy in America.

Unless we overcome the racial and ethnic barriers to full participation in civil society—barriers that are the painful reality of systemic racism—this is not a democracy at all.

When we fight for Democracy, we fight for voting rights at the ballot box.

And we fight for working people having a union at work to shape our working conditions and economic futures.

Democracy is always a work in progress.

And the progress we celebrate is because those who have been cut out or marginalized, have nevertheless fought on—demanded their right to a voice, to a say in shaping this country.

But after so many attacks by the wealthy and powerful, we’ve reached a critical moment for our democracy.

So we are going to leverage the full might of our movement.

The labor movement is all in.

We are standing up to the corporate-driven attacks that show up in the form of racist voter suppression and union busting.

We will do everything in our power to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, immigration reform to guarantee a path to citizenship.

United and through solidarity, we can and we will reclaim our organizing rights.

Dr. King understood this intersectionality well. When he spoke to AFSCME sanitation workers on strike in Memphis he said, “Along with wages and all of the other securities that you are struggling for, you are also struggling for the right to organize and be recognized.”

This is an important moment to take up Dr. King’s statement of our intersectionality across our movements.

Americans see unions as an answer like never before, young workers see the best hope for progress is through collective voice and action.

Today, across industries, working people are demanding more from their bosses at the bargaining table, they are taking risks, walking out of jobs, withholding their labor—and leveraging the power of strikes here and all over the world.

Working people are standing up.

Better wages. Safer conditions.

Organizing in new industries.

Leading breakthroughs at long-standing corporations and institutions.

And we are going to make sure working people win.

We are taking on Amazon.

We are going back to Bessemer where the workforce is overwhelmingly people of color.

This is absolutely a racial justice issue.

And with commitments from so many affiliates—it’s an inspiring example of solidarity.

Today, we reflect on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

But it is about so much more than one man or one cause.

It’s about him, her, them. All of us.

And as a movement, 12.5 million people and growing—57 unions strong—with the most diverse leadership team in AFL-CIO history—this is our year to make the most progress yet for every working person in this country.

Thank you.

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