Labor Unions Champion More than Union Members

berry craigLabor haters love to claim that unions only care about their own members.

The claims are baloney of course. Unions advocate for more than just men and women who pack union cards.

Unions champion the whole working class. No one understood that better than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said:

“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.”

On March 5, 1964, Dr. King, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and Jackie Robinson, the first African American Major League baseball player, helped lead more than 10,000 people – including several union members — in a march to the Kentucky state capitol in Frankfort. The march was in support of a bill introduced by State Rep. Norbert Blume of Louisville, a union-card carrying Democrat, that would outlaw racial discrimination in public places such as stores, restaurants, movie theatres and hotels.

Blume had been president of Teamsters Local 783 in the Falls City. Some of the union members who joined the procession were Sam Ezelle, secretary-treasurer of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO; Jimmy Stewart, business manager of Louisville Laborers Local 576; and union and civil rights activist W.C. Young of Paducah.

Blume’s bill didn’t pass, but the Louisville lawmaker didn’t give up. Too, the march helped provide important momentum for passage of the Blume-backed Civil Rights Act of 1966, the first such measure approved by a Southern state.
Union members, including Bill Londrigan, state AFL-CIO president, are expected to help swell the ranks of a 50th Anniversary Civil Rights March on the capitol on March 5. The special commemoration is sponsored by the Kentucky Human Rights Commission and the Allied Organizations for Civil Rights, a coalition that includes the state AFL-CIO, the A. Phillip Randolph Institute and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

“The historic March on Washington for Jobs and Civil Rights where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his historic ‘I have a Dream’ speech included the input and close participation of trade unionists such as A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Walter Reuther,” Londrigan said. “The participation and support of organized labor was also evident fifty years ago during the March on Frankfort when trade unionists such as Norbert Blume, W.C. Young, Sam Ezelle and Jimmy Stewart had significant roles in the march as well as strong support for passage of Kentucky’s historic Civil Rights Act of 1966.”

He added, “The upcoming March 5th march and rally in Frankfort represents another significant event when organized labor will again rise to the occasion to support and participate in this fifty-year commemoration of the 1964 March on Frankfort.  On March 5th, organized labor will again demonstrate our long and deep commitment to civil and workers’ rights, because organized labor knows that civil rights and workers’ rights cannot be separated and Kentucky’s labor movement is proud to stand for and struggle for both.”

I don’t know if union marchers in 1964 included Bill Sanders, Young’s good friend and union brother. Sanders headed the West Kentucky Building and Construction Trades Council in Paducah for many years.

Dubbed “Mr. Western Kentucky Labor,” Sanders once told me a story that’s another good example of how unions change “misery and despair into hope and progress.”

He recalled a Detroit woman, a stranger almost penniless and down on her luck, who got drunk in Paducah and ended up in jail. She had hurt her knee and needed medical attention.

Sanders’ office was close to the lockup. He remembered:

“The jailer came over to me and told me about her. He said, ‘Bill, you’ve got a union meeting this morning. Will you see what you can do?’ I said I would, and I asked him how much money she would need. The jailer said ‘$500 for her hospital bill and she’ll have to have some traveling money, too.’

“Well, we made up all that money. So I went down to the hospital and gave this money to that lady, and she said, ‘Mr. Sanders, when I get better, I’m going back to Detroit and go back to my husband and try to work things out.’ When she got well, she went back to Detroit, joined the church and got back with her husband. That’s the kind of things unions do that never get in the paper.”

Author: Berry Craig, AFT Local 1360

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.