In 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the United Auto Workers about what the civil rights movement had learned from the labor movement. He said that, in the 1930s, “you creatively stood up for your rights by sitting down at your machines, just as our courageous students are sitting down at lunch counters across the South.”
When King was describing the “kinship” between the two movements, organized labor was strong, representing about a third of the non-agricultural private-sector workforce. The civil rights movement was still a fledgling campaign, not yet having won passage of the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act.
This Labor Day, the roles have reversed. The civil rights movement is the nation’s iconic cause. The gay rights movement, hardly a blip on the radar screen a half-century ago, is winning meaningful victories in the courts and in legislatures. But unions are on the road to virtual extinction.
Even public-sector unions, now a majority of the labor movement, are on the defensive. A new movie, “Won’t Back Down,” unfairly paints teachers unions as impediments to quality education for students of color. One character asks, “When did Norma Rae get to be the bad guy?”