Following the 1955 merger of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the AFL-CIO became an ally of civil rights organizations. Martin Luther King spoke of the shared goals of the civil rights and labor movements, noting in his 1961 address to the fourth AFL-CIO national convention that both African Americans and union members were fighting for “decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community” (King, 11 December 1961).
The AFL was founded in 1886 as an umbrella organization for unions of skilled craft workers. In 1926, under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters became affiliated with the AFL. The AFL gained organizing momentum during the New Deal era after the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. The CIO, which first emerged as an AFL committee, split from its parent organization in the late 1930s. When the AFL and CIO amalgamated, the 1955 merger agreement included a civil rights clause calling for non-discrimination in union privileges.
During the years that followed, the AFL-CIO and some of its major constituent unions supported the civil rights struggle by providing financial and legal assistance, and moral support. Most prominent among those unions were the United Packinghouse Workers of America, led by Ralph Helstein; District 65 of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union; and the United Auto Workers. During the Montgomery bus boycott George Meany, the AFL-CIO’s newly elected president, sent a telegram to President Dwight D. Eisenhower urging him to investigate the violence aimed at Martin Luther King and E. D. Nixon. He also communicated his dismay to Georgia’s governor Ernest Vandiver regarding the “shocking and unusual penalty” imposed on King after he was sentenced to four months in prison for an October 1960 sit-in arrest (Meany, 26 October 1960). When King addressed the AFL-CIO’s fourth convention in 1961, he dubbed the AFL-CIO and the civil rights movement “the two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country,” and called on the organization to “deal effectively with discrimination and provide financial aid for [the] struggle in the South” (King, 11 December 1961).
The AFL-CIO’s support was not unconditional. Its executive council declined to support the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, adopting a position of neutrality; however, many international and local unions were present in substantial numbers. Meany and King also disagreed about the Vietnam War. After giving his controversial “Beyond Vietnam” speech in 1967, King attended a conference of the National Leadership Assembly for Peace, made up of union leaders who disputed the AFL-CIO’s official support of U.S. intervention in Vietnam.
In 1968, black Memphis sanitation workers in the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 1733, an AFL-CIO affiliate, went on strike for better working conditions. The strike lasted 65 days and involved nearly 1,300 men. Although King was occupied with the Poor People’s Campaign at the time, he traveled to Memphis repeatedly to support the strike and drew national attention to the workers’ cause. King was assassinated during his third trip.
In the decades following King’s death, labor groups were instrumental in advocating for the enactment of a national holiday to celebrate King’s legacy.
Draper, Conflict of Interests, 1994.
Honey, Going Down Jericho Road, 2007.
William P. Jones, “Working-Class Hero,” The Nation (30 January 2006).
King, Address Delivered at the Fourth Constitutional Convention of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), 11 December 1961, GRVVL-MiEM.
Meany to Vandiver, 26 October 1960, ACCP-MdU.