Over the weekend, unionists from all over the country gathered in Atlanta, Georgia for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Civil and Human Rights Conference, organized by the American labor federation AFL-CIO.
For a struggling labor movement, the event is a crucial opportunity to forge bonds with other burgeoning social movements.
The Martin Luther King conference has taken place over Martin Luther King weekend for around two decades, but this year’s event comes at an especially pivotal moment for the AFL-CIO and organized labor more generally. The percentage of American workers in a union is at a historic low, but labor groups have found some new energy by emphasizing social movement organizing. Now the question confronting the labor movement is whether it can translate that energy into a sustainable power base.
Carmen Berkley, the Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Director for the AFL-CIO, told Al Jazeera that it is critical for organized labor to collaborate with civil rights groups and the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement that has emerged out of recent police killings of unarmed black men.
“Even before Mike Brown and Eric Garner we were very disturbed by what happened to Trayvon Martin,” said Berkley. “We really feel like we cannot sit on the sidelines when it comes to talking about racial justice issues."
That’s in part because the labor movement is coming to encompass far more people of color. As the United States transitions from an economy rooted in manufacturing to one based largely on service sector jobs, organizations like the AFL-CIO and the other main labor federation Change to Win (CtW) have been trying to expand their membership among low-wage service sector workers — a field in which people of color are disproportionately represented.
The unions recognize that appealing to prospective members means addressing social issues that don’t directly tie to the conditions of their employment, said Berkley.
“People cannot divorce what their identity is from their job,” she said. “Most people don’t just get a chance to show up as a worker. They show up as a parent, they show up as a person of color."
Some of that new emphasis on social movement work has begun to pay off, as racial justice groups have lent support to initiatives such as the campaigns to organize Walmart employees and fast food workers. Unions hope that this approach will help them establish a foothold into the traditionally anti-union South.
“Working in the South is not a short-term strategy,” said Berkley. “It’s a long-term strategy."