Labor movement loses strong advocate: John Lewis passes away at 80
By KATE MOSTACCIO
The Civil Rights movement lost an icon July 17 when Congressman John Robert Lewis passed away from pancreatic cancer at age 80. Lewis stood firm for what he believed in, working tirelessly to help organize the 1963 March on Washington and instrumental in many key actions that would eventually lead to the end of legalized racial segregation in the United States.
While he was perhaps best known for his civil rights activism, he was also a strong advocate for the labor movement and often lent his considerable political strength and stalwart advocacy to fighting for the rights of workers.
For that legacy, his voice will also be sorely missed.
Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1987, Lewis stood behind many labor matters over the years – from fighting attempts to weaken minimum wage laws, to modernizing family, sick and vacation leave, to supporting the Employee Free Choice Act and the rights of workers to organize collectively.
In 2014, Lewis merged his civil rights activism and his labor activism, introducing a bill that would make union organizing a civil right. Working alongside U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, Lewis fought for a bill that would make labor organizing a basic freedom no different than freedom from racial discrimination. The legislation would have amended the National Labor Relations Act to include protections found under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to include labor organizing as a fundamental right, giving workers a broader range of legal options if they feel discriminated against for trying to form a union. While the bill didn’t proceed to a vote, it was still a strong showing of support for labor and collective bargaining.
Lewis believed in the idea of a livable wage — that no matter how hard a person works, unless they earn a livable wage anyone is at risk of being impoverished overnight.
Early on in his congressional career he threw his support behind the workers of Eastern Airlines during a labor dispute and 20 years later, he was still at it, standing up for workers on the ground, this time for 55,000 Delta Airlines employees in Georgia who were toiling through years of bankruptcy.
“He taught us how to be justice warriors – how to fight for freedom and justice for a better life for all,” said the American Federation of Teachers in a tribute to Lewis on Facebook. “He was a giant in every sense of the word, and all of us who work to repair the world owe him an enormous debt.”