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Organized Labor Throws Support behind March

Barrington M. Salmon | 8/21/2013, noon
Bill Lucy wasn’t among the more than 250,000 people who took part in the 1963 March on Washington, but on ...
Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr. Courtesy Photo

Bill Lucy wasn’t among the more than 250,000 people who took part in the 1963 March on Washington, but on the 50th anniversary of the seminal civil rights event, he said organized labor would be well represented.

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Bill Lucy

Lucy, a respected labor organizer and activist, said the steady assault on unions by the Republican right wing, state legislators and other elements like the Tea Party, has convinced labor leaders that they must form and deepen coalitions with other groups and interests to fend off the attempts to neuter or destroy organized labor.

“Eliminate the unions’ ability to fight back, bargain and raise a challenge to all these laws taking place across the country, and you stall the movement,” said Lucy who’s been a part of the labor movement for 57 years. “The right wing is protecting its status. The role that labor historically plays they see as a threat to their continued privileged status. And all of a sudden, labor realizes that it’s in the bulls-eye with people of color. It took a long time for labor to see that its salvation laid in recruiting women, immigrants and young people.”

Lucy, 79, retired as secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, is the president-emeritus of the Coalition of Black Trade Unions and served on the Executive Council of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). He said organized labor played a crucial role in providing support and money for the 1963 march.

While the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and other civil rights organizations fought against Jim Crow and segregation, up North, the focus was on employment and housing discrimination and inequalities in the school system, unions were on the frontlines fighting for fair pay and wages and equality in the workforce.

Lucy recalled union activity surrounding the march 50 years ago. United Auto Workers paid for the majority of the event, while Asa Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) provided transportation for many of the quarter-million people who converged upon Washington, D.C., he said. Union members also helped with grassroots organization.

But the march began with Randolph, BSCP founder and president, who, along with activist Bayard Rustin, organized the March on Washington Movement in 1941 and who proposed a march on Washington to demand jobs and freedom as a way to protest against the federal government’s hiring practices that excluded blacks from federal contracts and employment. Alarmed at the prospect of 100,000 people marching on Washington, President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded by signing Executive Order 8802 which banned discrimination in the federal government and defense industries.

Rustin, a pacifist, seemed to be everywhere in the civil rights sphere as organizer, advisor, strategist, visionary and coalition builder. He was the central organizer of the 1963 March on Washington; assisted in developing a Freedom Ride in 1947; used civil disobedience to combat racial discrimination on interstate busing; and was instrumental in helping organize the SCLC and CORE.