In the days since Rep. John Lewis passed away, he has been justly praised as a hero of the civil rights movement, a brave soldier for voting rights, and the conscience of the Congress. He was all of those things, but underappreciated is Lewis’s role as a champion of organized labor. In particular, he fought to make labor rights be thought of as civil rights—an idea that he had to convince even some of his closest colleagues was the right approach.
Lewis came to national prominence as the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. The full name of the march was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”—a shining moment that linked economic and civil rights as one. Like the featured speaker that day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis knew that great things were mostly likely to happen in the United States only when the labor and civil rights movements were united for change.
On a hot day in July 2014, more than fifty years later, Lewis spoke outside of the U.S. Capitol, and recalled his involvement in the March on Washington. “It was not just civil rights, but it was also organized labor” he emphasized. Lewis was speaking in 2014 on behalf of the Employee Empowerment Act, legislation he introduced with Congressman Keith Ellison, to give labor organizing the same legal protections against discrimination as those afforded subjects of racial or sex bias.
Ellison and Lewis knew that workers were routinely being fired for organizing. While technically illegal under the National Labor Relations Act, the penalties levied against employers who received a negative finding by the National Labor Relations Board—back pay and restoration of one’s job—were impotent. Employers thus could fire workers seeking to unionize and then simply pay the fines as an acceptable cost of doing business. Employers intimidated their workers, as Ellison explained, because “most people want a union, but they need a job.” In part because of the lack of legal protections with teeth, the labor movement has declined much faster in the United States than in other wealthy nations. To fix this problem, Lewis and Ellison argued, workers trying to organize needed the same rights as Black people who are discriminated against: the right to a day in court, and the possibility of compensatory and punitive damages when discriminated against.
I proudly stood behind Lewis that day because the idea for the Employee Empowerment Act, Ellison graciously noted, was based on a book that Moshe Marvit and I wrote, entitled Why Union Organizing Should Be a Civil Right. When the book first came out, there was grumbling from those on the right—and even some on the left—that civil rights and labor rights are two very different things.
When Marvit and I wrote an op-ed about the idea in the New York Times, right-wing pundit Ann Coulter denounced the concept on Fox Business News. Using a classic divide-and-conquer strategy, Coulter argued that “Civil rights is for blacks. . . . Now they want to call everything a civil right, whether it’s women or immigrants, and now, labor unions?!” Ellison told me that some leaders in the civil rights community were initially reluctant to support the bill as well. Civil rights were meant to protect people for their identity, not for their actions, some argued. But once Lewis endorsed the idea, civil rights groups quickly came on board.
Lewis’s message at the July 2014 press conference was simple and powerful. “In my home state of Georgia, people are struggling to make ends meet,” he said. “It seems like they have the cards stacked against them. In every corner of our country, there is a constant effort to roll back protection and freedom for workers, who have a right to organize and protect themselves from any unjust and inhumane action of employers. In the twenty-first century, . . . workers should not be afraid to demand a living wage. Workers should not face intimidation for organizing and bargaining collectively.”
He continued: “This bill . . . provides stronger protection from workplace retaliation,” he said. “It is the right thing to do. It is a just thing to do. It is a fair thing to do.” Lewis concluded, “Let’s protect all of the workers.”
In uniting labor and civil rights, Lewis was harkening back to a tradition that Martin Luther King championed in a 1961 speech to the AFL–CIO. King declared, “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: 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. . . . The duality of interests of labor and Negroes makes any crisis which lacerates you a crisis from which we bleed.”
Lewis’s inclusive position on how we should think about civil rights was consistent with his larger view about how social change is made in the United States. Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy notes, “He eschewed tribal narcissism and embraced coalition politics.” Indeed, early in his career, Lewis was famously ousted as head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee by Black Power advocates, who subsequently kicked white allies out of the organization. Throughout his career, Lewis took the path of coalition, in hopes of building King’s “Beloved Community.” Lewis was, says Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, “the last integrationist.”
As we think about ways to honor Lewis’s legacy, restoring the Voting Rights Act should be item number one. But not far behind should come efforts to make labor organizing a civil right—a concept built into Rep. Bobby Scott’s Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. Strengthening voting rights, and strengthening organized labor, Lewis knew, could help change the world.