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Organized Labor and Civil Rights: Not Mutually Exclusive

By: Logan Byrne, Esq.

As a young attorney, advocate for the underserved, and candidate for state representative, I am dedicated to the protection and expansion of civil liberties in Michigan. Essential to the expansion of these rights is the support of organized labor. Civil rights activists and labor unions have passionately fought for progress designed to respect and safeguard individuals. It is my belief that strong labor unions are essential to the continued progress of civil rights.

Concerted attacks on the labor movement are largely against women and minorities as well as less-educated men in the workplace. Economic fairness is a necessity in a fair and equitable society. Importantly, labor unions are well-positioned to hold employers accountable and ensure that all individuals have the opportunity for economic growth – regardless of their race, gender or other protected characteristic.

Labor unions have proven themselves effective tools in civil rights progress. For example, in the early 1900s, labor unions helped propel eastern and southern European immigrants into the broader economy, which culminated in a strong American middle class. Now, labor unions and civil rights activists have unfinished business: economic equity for women and minority workers.

Women in the workplace face a variety of barriers, such as discrimination based on sex and gender, stereotypes, undervaluation of work, and pay inequity. Moreover, women are frequently pushed out of the workplace for becoming pregnant or breastfeeding. Likewise, minority populations face dis crimination and a similar assortment of workplace inequities. Minority women face both sets of barriers simultaneously.

What does this have to do with labor unions? The modern labor movement has a strong commitment to organizing women and minority populations. Simply put, a strong labor movement is the quickest path to economic opportunity for underserved communities. Union members are more likely to have health care benefits, paid time off, and sick leave. Unions also bring a less tangible but equally important benefit to employees: fair treatment and dignity. Importantly, unions can help end workplace discrimination by negotiating for contracts that set uniform pay levels and procedures for promotions and job assignments. Well-formed contracts are instrumental in promoting equity in the workplace.

At the AFL-CIO’s annual convention in 1961, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. eloquently stated that the needs of minority populations “are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community.” Civil rights are important to the majority of Americans, as they are to me. As such, Michigan needs strong labor laws designed to facilitate a healthy relationship between unions and employers and the strong labor movement essential to ensuring economic justice for women and minority populations.

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