AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks as prepared to the 2023 AFL-CIO Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil and Human Rights Conference.
Hello, everyone! Welcome to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil and Human Rights Conference. And to those of you who’ve joined us from across the country, welcome to D.C.!
I want to recognize the hard work that goes into bringing events like this one to life and just say a special thanks to our Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond and his team, who have been tireless, as well as our union supporters at LIUNA, the Steelworkers, the MLBPA and Union Plus for their sponsorship.
This year’s conference theme “Claiming our Power, Protecting our Democracy,” is so timely and important. Over the past few years we’ve seen the rise of misinformation, of political polarization dividing our communities, the rise in attacks on our basic freedoms like the right to vote and organize a union, and attacks on our democracy itself.
And as a labor movement, we have to respond. We know how to use our voices to fight back against those in power who want to weaken and diminish us. We know how to leverage the power of collective action – and it’s by speaking together, in one clear voice, demanding change, is one of the best hopes our nation has not only for a continuing but also a thriving democracy.
When I was thinking about all of you traveling from different corners of the country this weekend to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, it called to mind the buses of activists and organizers and union members who flooded into D.C. for the March on Washington.
This year marks the 60th Anniversary of the March on Washington. And while we can celebrate the progress we’ve made, the truth is that we have so much work left to do to make Dr. King’s dream a reality.
Everyone here knows this, but it’s worth repeating hat march that drew 250,000 people to the National Mall to fight for equality in 1963 – it became known at the “March on Washington” – but the full title was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
Jobs and freedom. In the labor movement, we know that those two ideas are intrinsically linked. Good jobs – union jobs – help create the economic freedom and political power necessary to have real opportunity and real equality for everyone. They are twin pillars of our democracy.
And when you look back to that August day 60 years ago, you’ll see that message ring out, time and time again from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
And one of the clearest voices on that issue was the labor movement’s own Walter Reuther. Walter Reuther was the president of UAW at the time, and he was the only white person to speak during the program. He recognized the privilege he had in that moment, and used his unique power and voice to call on everyone to join in the fight for civil rights. He said “the struggle for equal opportunity is the struggle for every American to join in. [That] men of good will must join together – men of all races, and creed, and color, and political persuasion – motivated by the spirit of human brotherhood.”
He knew that this burden, this fight was not for people of color to take on on their own. And that if white people did not link arms and join them there was no way to get true equality. Fast forward six decades later, we’re still in that fight. And I believe it’s white leaders and white people who need to speak up and lead. It’s white leaders who need to show up more in this fight.
In 1963, Dr. King couldn’t get the support of the AFL-CIO. This movement was not where it is now. Now we know that all of our work must be done through the lens of racial justice.
And Fred [Redmond] and I have worked together to prioritize that work at the AFL-CIO, building a Racial Justice Task Force not just to do a study and put out a report, but to inculcate racial justice into our work across the federation, every day. And we’ve benefitted so deeply from that task force and from Fred’s leadership and historical connections to the labor and civil rights movements. He has worked tirelessly throughout his career to weave the two movements together, to build on the work done in the past, and to lift up our shared values and shared goals and where we’re building toward in the future. Our movement owes so much to his work, his experience and his perspectives.
I also want to recognize that people of color lead this movement forward every day in every corner of the country - in organizing efforts against major corporations, in community organizing, and on the picket lines.
I look at Washington State, which just made history by becoming the first state federation to be led by two Black women – April Sims and Cherika Carter. I think about Striketober, when I had the chance to walk the BCTGM Local 358 picket line at Nabisco with Keith Bragg, who was leading more than 1,000 workers on strike over threats to the health care benefits of new hires. Keith knew that if they stood together they could win. He said: “We don’t sell out our young workers. We are fighting for the next generation.” And together, we won.
When we fight for each other, we all win. We want people to see that - we especially want young people, people of color and women to see the labor movement as the place – as a home – to make change that everyone benefits from. That’s how we build the future and the country we all want to live in.
That’s the future Walter Reuther called on people across America to build during his remarks at the March on Washington. He called on the crowd to “join together, march together, work together until we have bridged the mortal gap between American democracy's noble promises, and its ugly practices in the field of civil rights.” He said “American democracy has been too long on pious platitudes, and too short on practical performances.”
So let us – the labor movement – show this nation what democracy looks like in practice. Let’s demonstrate what it looks like to show up for each other, to speak as one and to fight for a democracy where everyone has the chance to live the life they dream of in a country that values them and respects them. No one person or community can take on this fight alone. And they don’t have to. This is what we do as a movement. That’s what the word “solidarity” means. So let’s show the world what we’re capable of.