Opinion guest column

Strong unions are a force for economic and racial justice

Union security and the unity of all workers has been key to improving wages, working conditions, and civil rights for all

Nearly 60 years ago, a quarter-million people rallied together for the historic “March on Washington,” where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. What’s sometimes forgotten about the march, though, is that it was actually called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The demands of the march included an end to segregation and the protection of voting rights, alongside an increase to the federal minimum wage and a federal jobs program to train and employ all unemployed workers. It was understood that ending poverty — with decent wages and full employment — was essential to achieving racial equality in practice.

It’s for this reason that Dr. King was a strong and unwavering proponent of the labor movement and unions as the principal means for workers of all races to fight for improved wages, employment, and working conditions. In fact, he was in Memphis, Tennessee, standing alongside public sanitation workers on strike for equal pay just a day before he was assassinated. And it wasn’t just Dr. King who viewed unions as an integral part of the civil rights movement. Workers did too, organizing in their unions for months to attend the March. And one of the key architects and leaders of the March, A. Philip Randolph, was a longtime labor leader who organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union of primarily Black workers in the railroad industry. Dr. King’s legacy, alongside those of countless other civil rights leaders, exemplifies how the civil rights movement and the labor movement are so deeply intertwined.

Dr. King understood the need to unite working class people across racial lines in order to fight back against discrimination and harassment in the workplace and beyond it. In this regard, unions have always played an important role. In 1866, newly emancipated Black women working as laundresses in Jackson, Mississippi, organized the first union in the state, demanding standard pay rates that afforded greater economic independence to assert their freedom against a continuing system of white supremacy. In the 1940s, in Louisville, Kentucky, workers in the Farm Equipment Workers union made interracial solidarity a priority, fighting racism in the factory as well as in the streets, shops, and parks of Louisville. In the 1950s, meatpacking workers unionized with United Packinghouse Workers of America fought to desegregate the workplace and end discriminatory hiring practices that excluded Black women in particular. In 1957, Dr. King wrote a letter supporting workers unionized with United Electrical Workers (our union) in their fight to end racial discrimination by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. The history of the labor movement has shown that workers win the most when we are all united. And this unity is the foundation that has enabled strong unions to fight for both economic rights and racial justice.

In this spirit, our union at MIT is a vehicle for economic security, to relieve the financial stress that each of us face, but also for fighting discrimination and harassment and guaranteeing protections for immigrant workers. Our union gives us the mechanism to begin addressing these issues, but we know they won’t disappear overnight. So while our immediate goal is to secure a strong contract, we ultimately cannot lose sight of the importance of building a strong and lasting union in which all workers are united. This maximizes our negotiating power to collectively improve our working and living conditions and our ability to hold the employer accountable to all graduate workers.

An important element of this unity is all workers contributing financially to ensure that our union has the resources to organize, enforce, and improve upon the gains we all win together. This concept is known as union security, and is a cornerstone of strong, long-lasting unions capable of continually improving wages, benefits, and respect and fair treatment on the job for years and decades to come. The arguments against union security are often framed as a “freedom of choice,” that each worker should have the freedom to choose whether they are members of the union. But the reality is that unions without union security consistently win lower wages and fewer benefits than those that have a strong union security clause in their contract.

Employers know this very well and, in an attempt to weaken unions, have pushed so-called “right-to-work” legislation that denies union security in some states (though not in Massachusetts) and all public-sector workplaces. These laws have racist roots, conceived in the 1940s as a means to reinforce Jim Crow segregation, divide workers, and reduce wages, particularly for Black workers. Dr. King put it best: “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights … Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone … Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights.”

Each and every one of us benefits personally from a strong union. Any one of us can face harassment, discrimination, or bullying; delays by the International Student Office; dangerous working conditions; or late pay. But having a strong union with the resources to enforce our contract will empower us to force MIT to address these issues. Union security also strengthens our ability to continue winning improvements in all future contracts.  Fortunately, we, as MIT grad workers, have the right to union security in our contract. But MIT is dragging its feet. So as we fight for an empowering grievance procedure for harassment, discrimination, and bullying as well as international worker rights, health and safety, and wage increases, it is just as essential that we fight for union security in our contract. We fought to win our union because we know it’s the most effective vehicle to address our needs. Now we need to ensure that our union remains strong for years and decades to come.

Nishad Gothoskar is a third-year PhD student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a Bargaining Committee Representative and member of the MIT Graduate Student Union.