Much is known about many aspects of the history of the Civil Rights Movement in America, however, the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America provided one of the least often heralded but most essential roles in the movement’s success.
Better known as the United Automobile Workers or UAW, the union was responsible for, among other things, posting the cash bond needed to have the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. released from a Birmingham jail and later, called attention to apartheid in South Africa and the incarceration of freedom fighter Nelson Mandela.
“We have never left the movement,” said Ray Curry, UAW’s international secretary-treasurer and member of the Daimler supervisory board, whose core functions include the control and monitoring of important corporate decisions for Daimler AG, the German multinational automotive corporation. “Among many archives of our building, there is a photo of our president, Walter Reuther with Dr. King during the March on Washington in August 1963. He was one of the few labor leaders on the podium to speak and be recognized.”
Curry said King and Mandela had an extremely close relationship with the UAW.
“Dr. King actually wrote his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Detroit in our offices and earlier that year, we were very instrumental in securing his release from a city jail and one of our former presidents, Owen Bieber, actually went to visit Nelson Mandela in prison and led a charge for his release. One of the first places Mandela spoke at following his release was at a UAW Local Union Hall in Michigan,” Curry said.
The backdrop that helped buoy the UAW is found in the fact that the union was formed to fight for and ensure worker’s rights. Thus, it was a “no-brainer for UAW to join the civil rights movement,” Curry said.
The UAW has remained vital because right-to-work initiatives and anti-worker legislation have often threatened to undermine labor unions’ efforts to secure negotiation rights and contracts for workers in their workplaces.
“We believe that labor is alive and well and we have been successful in organizing even in the South over the last four years where we have 12,000 new members in places like Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas and Oklahoma,” Curry said. “The UAW now has over 430,000 members and each of the last nine years we’ve had growth.”
A U.S. Army veteran, Curry began his manufacturing career at Daimler Trucks, in Mount Holly, N. C. and he served in numerous elected roles for UAW Local 5285 until his 2004 appointment to the UAW’s International Staff and later, in 2010, as assistant regional director.
Curry won election as regional director in 2014 and, as a member of UAW’s international executive board, he was responsible for Region 8, which consists of 12 U.S. states in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.
Earlier this year, Curry was elected UAW’s secretary-treasurer.
He said the importance of organized labor can also be realized in the voice of freedom fighters like Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, who has continued to speak in favor of unions, a message Cummings delivered during the recent Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference.
“It makes it better for everyone when you have an elected leader’s voice who has constituents that he talks to across the district every day and Congressman Cummings has a chance to hear the issues on a national level,” Curry said. “He’s been one of those champions that believes and advocates for working men and women.”
It’s important that African-Americans and other minorities understand the significance of Curry’s election to the Daimler Supervisory Board because labor representation has always been vital for all workers and with voices sought in numerous places, having diversity in the United States and in host countries could go a long way in securing the livelihoods of employees, Curry said.
“The board is a reflection of the corporation’s global footprints and there’s a commitment to diversity,” he said.
Despite its rich history of supporting civil rights and other causes that have allowed them to partner with numerous minority groups, the UAW plans to continue to strengthen its relationship with historically Black colleges and universities and the Black Press, Curry said.
“We believe African-American newspapers need to be amplified. We have utilized a number of papers in the past including the Jackson Advocate and the Chronicle in Detroit as media outlets in our member messaging and organizing efforts.” he said. “The voice of tolerance and inclusion needs to be amplified and this is not always done in the national media. Whether its Rosa Parks then, or Dr. William Barber now, we’ve got to have an outlet for that message. When you look back at 1965 and then today in 2018, I don’t think the question would be if Dr. King and other leaders would be impressed with the technology of today as much as they would question the ability to message globally through new avenues of social media,” said Curry. “And we still face issues in this country that federal laws and other advocacy were to have addressed in the sixties.”