The recent transit workers’ strike in New York City was a vivid reminder that unions maintain considerable leverage despite their shrinking numbers. Buried beneath the stories about tense negotiations, holiday shopping disruptions and commuters hoofing it over the Brooklyn Bridge was one of labor’s past glories–the creation of Martin Luther King Day. When Transport Workers’ Union president Roger Toussaint demanded recognition of the holiday, he cited the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s failure to honor King’s birthday as evidence of administrators’ lack of respect for the mostly black, Latino and Asian-American members of his union. By doing so, he harked back to the civil rights leader’s working-class activism–and the forgotten labor roots of the MLK holiday.
Given the corporate sponsorship of contemporary King day celebrations, it may come as a surprise that the holiday began as a union demand in contract negotiations. In 1968, just four days after King’s assassination, Representative John Conyers introduced a bill to make the slain leader’s birthday a national holiday. The bill would likely have died in committee, and stayed buried, had it not been for thousands of working-class Americans–most of them black, but also white, Asian and Latino–who risked their jobs over the next fifteen years to demand the right to honor a man they viewed as a working-class hero.
As black union leader William Lucy testified before Congress, King’s prolabor politics gave the holiday a “special significance” for the organized working class. Those politics had emerged from King’s close collaboration in the 1950s and early 1960s with union activists like Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph and Cleveland Robinson, a leader of the New York City-based Distributive Workers of America (DWA). Lucy highlighted that King was shot while supporting a strike in Memphis by members of Lucy’s union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
Initial protests on behalf of a King holiday were small and geographically limited. Managers at a General Motors plant in New York threatened to discipline a small group who refused to work on King’s birthday in 1969, but GM backed down after a larger group walked off their jobs in solidarity a few days later. A few thousand New York City hospital workers went on strike that fall, returning only after managers agreed to higher wages, better benefits and a paid holiday on King’s birthday. Similar contracts were won by 25,000 additional hospital workers and 80,000 dressmakers a few months later.
Unions provided the financial and social capital to extend the movement nationwide. That support was coordinated by DWA leader Robinson, a close friend of the King family. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, invited Robinson and Conyers to kick off the campaign for a national holiday at a 1969 birthday rally at the new King center in Atlanta. At the rally, Conyers recounted his bill’s defeat in Congress and expressed hope for more support the following year. Robinson called for direct action, declaring, “We don’t want anyone to believe we hope Congress will do this. We’re just sayin’, Us black people in America just ain’t gonna work on that day anymore.”