Law and Politics

Selma’s Biggest Lesson For Labor

March 19, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco

Unite Here President D. Taylor

New York, NY – Is the labor movement spending too much energy lobbying politician in the hopes elected officials will act on behalf of working men and women? Absolutely, says Unite Here President D. Taylor. 

“Politics are important,” Taylor told LaborPress this week. “But I think the most important thing is organizing workers and mobilizing workers. Mobilizing workers we represent, as well as those we don’t represent — because they’re both getting screwed.”

Earlier this month, Unite Here’s national president joined with hundreds of other rank and file members throughout the country in Alabama for the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery March and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

The courage that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights activist displayed crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday” 50 years ago, was inspirational, of course. But according to Taylor, this year’s stirring commemoration should also remind the labor movement about the importance of on-the-ground organizing. 

“I think some of us in the labor community are confused,” Taylor says. “They think that politics helps organizing. But I would turn that around. Politics have never helped organizing until we organized enough to force the politicians to help us organize.”

The Civil Rights activists who braved racist billy clubs had steel backbones, but Taylor insists that the labor movement needs to learn the other lessons that were taught in Alabama a half century ago. 

“They had individual courage, but they also had very smart strategy,” Taylor says. “We’re obligated in the labor movement to learn those lessons.”

Despite the heroic victories that the Civil Rights Movement achieved in the 1960s, Taylor says that Jim Crow is back, voting rights are once again under attack, and organized labor needs to spearhead the fight to beat back the anti-worker assault. 

“When you talk about the Occupy Movement and the 99 Percent, those are all things that exist, but if you don’t have organization it can’t sustain itself,” Taylor says. “We have to provide that organization.”

As the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show, organizing workers in the south continues to be one of labor’s biggest challenges. Nevertheless, Taylor says that organizing efforts in the Deep South must continue with greater intensity, and UniteHere is showing signs of growth in Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana. 

“Our union has lost some fights and come back to fight another day and won,” Taylor says. “It’s not a question of if you’re going to win or lose, it’s a question of whether you’re going to keep organizing and fighting. I think people are desperate for somebody to fight for them.”

Although bleak, the continuing grim economic climate for workers throughout the country, would appear to present organized labor with the opportunity to address income inequality and workplace injustice in ways that harken back to the Selma-to-Montgomery March. 

“There’s enormous dissatisfaction out there, and I think the labor movement has to be viewed as a vehicle to channel that dissatisfaction,” Taylor says. “And we haven’t done that yet. The labor movement has to be organizing, not just talking about organizing. We have to be organizing a lot more in all different sectors. That’s just essential.” 

March 19, 2015

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