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Many of us read about the history of labor in school. Steven Calco learned it growing up in a family of laborers. By the time he went to school he knew the stories from his grandparents, father and mother, aunts and uncle, who left their tiny village outside of Sicily to come to the United States to work as laborers.

As the first in Steven’s large family to be born in the U.S., and the first in his family to go to college, his own memories fleshed out his professors’ lectures with the real-life challenges workers in the trenches had to endure. He grew up observing the struggles of workers to make their way out of poverty and to be treated fairly with dignity.

As research archivist in Cornell University Library’s renowned Kheel Center at the ILR School, Steven was thrilled when his predecessor Patrizia Sione showed him research materials about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s embrace of the labor movement.  

“Everyone in my family, except me, was born in another country, working as farmers, railroad and construction workers, and garment makers,” he said. “I’m reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words: ‘So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, [but] whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. Dr. King was a champion of the labor movement, so intertwined with his work for racial and social justice.”

From the carefully preserved Kheel Center archives, Steven and his colleagues have previously prepared exhibits on the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1199, with whom Dr. King proudly identified himself as an honorary fellow. He described them as the “Authentic conscience of the Labor Movement.”

This spring, Steven Calco and Eric Acree, director of the Africana Library and curator of Africana Collections at the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornellwill highlight Dr. King’s monumental work with health and hospital workers (SEIU). “Dr. King was a champion of the labor movement, which he viewed as crucial to racial and social justice.”

In 1959, Dr. King helped organize a strike by 3,000 health care workers from seven NYC hospitals. While the 46-day strike did not result in union recognition, the alliance of civil rights and labor rights proved to be an essential foundation for the workers. The strikers did achieve a wage increase, establishment of a 40-hour work week with overtime pay and a grievance mechanism. Notably, Dr. King’s 1959 strike literature was printed in English and in Spanish.

Dr. King’s ardent support of frontline hospital workers did result in union recognition for hospital workers in NYC in 1962, following a 56-day strike. And the bond of economic and racial justice movements was cemented.

Dr. King’s towering presence at rallies and gatherings during this era is preserved in the Kheel Center, with dozens of photographs, speeches, recordings, flyers, letters ands interviews. The Center also has an LP of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963. Those of us whose parents took us to hear Dr. King know that the speech was part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Dr. King, a giant in the civil rights movement, spoke out often and powerfully about the inextricable bond between workers’ rights and civil rights until his assassination on April 4, 1968in Memphis.

Eric Acree’s mother, a member of Local 1199, Dr. King’s “favorite union,” is memorialized in the Kheel archives that will be on display. A photo of Eric was discovered in one of the Local 1199 newsletters from 1971.

For more information about this upcoming exhibit, so relevant to the plight of our hospital workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, so relevant more than 50 years after Dr. King’s death, see: https://catherwood.library.cornell.edu/kheel/

And stay tuned for a companion column highlighting Coretta Scott King’s crucial yet little known role in her family’s advocacy for racial and economic justice.

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