A Labor Movement for All of Us

By Sharon Gary-Smith of Portland, Oregon. As the executive director of McKenzie River Gathering (MRG) Foundation, Sharon leads a multi-racial, cross-class effort to strengthen the social and economic justice movement through activist-led philanthropy.

This Labor Day, I am reminded that this is a time for picnics, family gatherings, and barbecues - and also a chance to reflect on the important role the labor movement has played and continues to play in creating a better Oregon for all of us.

I grew up in a household with parents who believed the union movement was good for everyone and who also knew there was more unions needed to do to be inclusive of the needs of all workers.

My mom was an organizer and true believer in the importance of working class people moving beyond their different agendas to achieve a broader movement than would be possible within a single group. My father saw that unions were important places of organized action and that, while they needed to do deeper, consistent work on inclusion, the union movement was a good thing for all laborers – and certainly African American workers who too often were victimized in the workplace.

From those early years up until now, I’ve believed in the power and importance of workers organizing for collective strength. To ensure decent wages and safe working conditions. To eliminate wage theft by unscrupulous employers. To push back against exploitation and secure a higher quality of life for all of us.

I also know the labor movement became stronger when its leadership and priorities became more inclusive; when it moved from just white men protecting the jobs of white men to a coalition of diverse voices speaking up for everyone. Today, that means ensuring LGBT workers aren’t discriminated against in hiring and promotions, ending wage theft for immigrant workers, fighting the marginalization of caregivers in the workplace, and recognizing the powerful history and vast contributions of African Americans and other workers of color.

Great work is happening here in Oregon. Jobs with Justice is at the forefront of international labor solidarity efforts. They know that oppressive labor conditions overseas drives down wages here and hurts all of us. Basic Rights Oregon is working to ensure transgender workers have access to healthcare. PCUN is fighting for the rights of all farm workers, regardless of immigration status. These groups and others are doing critical work and I’m proud that MRG Foundation funds some and partners with others.

And, yet, there is still work to be done. A zestful, thriving Oregon is only possible when our community leaders, our union leaders, and our political leaders commit equally to lifting up the work and voices of historically marginalized workers.

Last week we marked the 50th anniversary of The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. At the March, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. galvanized worker organizing and collective bargaining that is so central to workers' rights with his now-iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. And the March itself came to fruition, in part, because of the efforts of A. Phillip Randolph, who had founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to elevate conditions for African American men who worked on the railroad.

Among other things, that historic March was about economic justice, employment access, and safe working conditions. It mattered in 1963, and in 2013, that fight for justice is still important. Not just for unions and not just for people of color and not just on Labor Day For all of us who aspire to a just and joyful world every day of the year.

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