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Labor unions key to recognition of MLK Holiday

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
U.S. Library of Congress

In 1983, President George Bush signed a law into effect that officially recognized Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a federal holiday. Dr. King is best known for his tireless efforts to end racial segregation and discrimination through non-violence and civil disobedience. A prominent leader in the civil rights movement, Dr. King was assassinated in 1968.

Viewed as a martyr by many, several efforts were made to have a federal holiday honoring his life and work. A Michigan Democratic Representative, John Conyers, introduced a bill to Congress but it was met with significant opposition. Some argued that there were significant costs associated with adding another federal paid holiday to the ten that were currently in existence. While others pointed out that very few individuals who had not held public office had been honored with a federal holiday and there would be a significant part with tradition if they enacted a holiday honoring a private citizen. The bill failed just 5 votes short of passage.

In the absence of a federal law, labor unions organized at the grassroots level to have Dr. King’s birth date recognized as a paid holiday. In 1969, a total of 60 General Motors employees failed to report to work on King’s birthday. When the workers were threatened with suspension, more than 1,200 employees walked off the job. That same year, New York City hospital workers agreed to end their strike once their demands were met. Amongst these were recognizing King’s birthday as a paid holiday.

More than a decade later, the movement to have King’s birthday recognized as a federal holiday gained significant progress largely due to the 20th anniversary of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and a petition with more than 6 million signatures in support of the holiday. The bill was re-presented to Congress in 1983 and passed with significant votes in both the House and the Senate.

The role of labor unions in the progression of the holiday was significant and in may ways parallel to King’s own legacy. Much like the civil rights movement which started with grassroots organization in churches, the victories amongst small groups of unionized workers grew to a national recognition.