The right to strike is the right to be treated as a human being

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee while fighting for the rights of sanitation workers. Indeed, MLK Jr. was a strong advocate for the rights of workers to organize unions, demanding in his later years that the country recognize its working poor. He even equated anti-worker voices with racism, once proclaiming that “he who hates work and lures work is always a two-headed creature, spewing anti-Negro epithets from a mouth and anti-Negro propaganda.” -worker of the other mouth”.

james walch

The sanitation workers King was fighting for in 1968 were public employees engaged in an intense strike, demanding to be treated as human beings and to have their union recognized. At the time, public employees in Tennessee could not strike legally.

The triumph of this story was the official recognition by the municipal government of the sanitation workers’ union and the boost this gave to public employees everywhere. They obtained the right to have their union recognized and the right to strike. It took an illegal strike to obtain the right to strike.

READ: Colorado Sun Opinion Columnists.

Think about it in the context of the current debates in Colorado over collective bargaining rights for public employees and the various versions of bills that could potentially be considered.

American labor history is filled with struggles for fair wages, benefits, and safer working conditions. Beyond these important issues, however, is the fundamental demand, resonating through centuries of exploitation, that workers have the right to speak with a collective voice and have their union recognized by their employers.

Union recognition is inextricably linked to human dignity, to the struggle to be seen by one’s employer and to have a voice in policies and decisions that have a direct impact on the workplace. Without this collective voice, workers are easily divided and left to the whims of those with power over them.

In Colorado, this story has been replayed over and over again, from the 19and century Leadville where immigrant workers formed some of the first statewide unions; in Ludlow, where immigrant coal miners and their families spent a Colorado winter in a tented camp, to see women and children murdered by members of the Colorado National Guard; the 1920 Denver streetcar workers’ strike; the United Farm Workers in the 1960s and 1970s; and more recently, DIA janitors, Boulder baristas and bakers, and King Soopers workers.

All of this historical trajectory has a common theme: the need for workers to speak with one voice and have that voice recognized by those who control the product of their labor. This is the central meaning of trade unions; beyond all the anti-working class propaganda is this basic concept of dignity, respect and the right to speak out collectively and to strike if necessary.

Currently, with the exception of very limited groups of public workers in specific locations, public sector workers are free to organize a union, but their employers are under no obligation to recognize or bargain with that union. A union without the right to collective bargaining deprives workers of their most precious and fundamental right: to sit around a table on an equal footing with their employer and have their voices heard.

As a labor studies scholar, I’ve always been fascinated by the extent to which so many anti-union voices — from municipal associations to manufacturers’ associations to chambers of commerce — are themselves unions in this meaning that they speak with a collective voice and fully understand that their power and influence emanate from this collective voice; while denouncing the right of workers to form their own collective voice.

Who should have the power to decide whether certain workers have the right to form a union? It is a decision that only the workers themselves should be able to make.

The right to form a union and to negotiate the conditions and remuneration of one’s work has been solidified in American society for nearly a century. This is not a decision for local municipalities, but a right for which hundreds of workers have died. This is the land on which the Ludlow Massacre Memorial was built and the land on which Martin Luther King Jr. died.

As with all workers’ rights legislation, we will have to fight to ensure that any proposed bill meets the needs of today’s public employees. It should ban the intimidation tactics that are commonly used against union organizers and leaders, strengthen public servants’ rights to strike, and allow our public employees to negotiate on all issues related to pay, benefits and working conditions. work.

Let’s not forget that unions matter. Unionized workers are paid more, enjoy better health care, have better retirement options, enjoy safer working conditions, and participate in a more dignified relationship in every respect than their non-unionized colleagues. Unions are also increasingly bargaining not just for better wages and conditions, but for the common good in their wider communities.

The Covid-19 pandemic has contributed to a new awareness among workers locally, nationally and internationally. Workers recognize their strength and the great injustice of low wages and wealth gaps that define the 21st economy of the century. An organized workforce benefits everyone and leads to a healthier and safer civic life.

For the first time in many decades, the general public recognizes the value of unions. King Soopers workers have felt this public support. DIA Guardians have felt this support. Colorado has an opportunity to take a leadership role in empowering workers, thanking them for their vital work in difficult times and declaring, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., that “all work has of dignity”.


James Walsh, of Denver, is an associate clinical professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Colorado at Denver, where he has taught for 24 years. He is a member of United Campus Workers Colorado—CWA Local 7799.


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the editorial staff. Read our Ethics Policy to learn more about The Sun’s opinion policy and submit reviews, suggested authors and more to [email protected]

Follow the Colorado Sun’s opinion on Twitter, instagram and Facebook.


We believe vital information should be seen by those affected, whether it is a public health crisis, investigative reporting, or holding lawmakers accountable. This report depends on the support of readers like you.