Labor's Debt To Dr. King

March 1, 2008

“Local 1199 represents the authentic conscience of the labor movement.” —From Dr. King’s remarks at 1199’s Salute to Freedom celebration in 1968. The emergence of 1199 as the foremost hospital union in the nation and Dr. King as the preeminent civil rights leader was no accident of history.

Dr. King, who was an early admirer of A. Philip Randolph, the pioneer labor leader and founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, saw early on the community of interests between the fights against racial injustice and against economic exploitation.

“As I have said many times, and believe with all my heart, the coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the Negro and the forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined,” Dr. King wrote to the Amalgamated LaundryWorkers in January 1962.

The 1960s saw Dr. King address countless labor gatherings. But he did not confine his support to speechmaking. He joined many picketlines, the last in Memphis, Tennessee.

The leaders of 1199, many of whom were christened in the labor and progressive battles of the 1930s, had allied the union with the black freedom movement early on. 1199 in 1956 provided financial support to the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, establishing a lasting relationship with Dr. King.

When the 1199 drive to organize New York City’s voluntary hospitals began, Dr. King was called upon often to lend support. He called New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in 1962 urging the governor to support collective bargaining legislation.

Just two months after Dr. King’s death in 1968, 1199 hospital workers won the historic $100 per week minimum wage. And on the heels of that victory, Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, agreed to serve as honorary chairperson of the 1199 National Organizing Committee.

Charleston, South Carolina, notorious for its segregation and anti-labor venom, was the first battleground in the organizing campaign. 1199 led a 100-day strike in the spring of 1969 for 400 black women at the University of South Carolina Medical College Hospital and Charleston County Hospital. Although the strike brought wage increases and improved conditions, 1199 fell short of winning union recognition for the Charleston workers.

The same year service and maintenance workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore voted for 1199. That’s when the young Alethia Boone became a food service worker at Johns Hopkins.

“Dr. King and Mrs. King helped us to learn that we had to stand up for ourselves,” Boone says. “I was pumped up when we won the union. Because we were together, we weren’t afraid.”

Boone retired last year after 38 years at Johns Hopkins, but over the years, she took her children and grandchildren to every King birthday event.

“I made sure they knew that Dr. King died for us, so that we could vote and have dignity at the workplace. It’s important that our younger members know that what we have wasn’t just given to us,” she says.

Unionists across the nation have drawn strength from Dr. King. “His dedication to the rights of the workers who are so often exploited by the forces of greed has profoundly touched my life and guided my struggle,” said the late Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farmworkers of America and an icon in the labor and rights movements.

“During my first fast in 1968, Dr. King reminded me that our struggle was his struggle too. He sent me a telegram, which said, ‘Our separate struggles are really one. A struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity.’”