American workers have paid a significant price for the decline of the American labor movement over the last three decades. A strong, vibrant labor movement benefits all workers: unionization has spillover effects into non-union employment, as corporations raise wages and improve working conditions in order to compete for workers and in efforts to stave off union organizers. A labor movement in decline and on the defensive is less and less able to perform that galvanizing role, and all workers suffer as a consequence.
What is more, an analysis in the Sunday New York Times points out, some groups of working people and Americans suffer more than others from the decline of the labor movement. The American labor movement has been an important means of economic advancement for African-Americans, who have been present in disproportionately large numbers in the American working class and working poor as a result of the legacy of racial slavery and a racial caste system of segregation. When the great industrial unions of the CIO organized the automobile, steel, electrical, chemical and other basic manufacturing industries, they organized workforces with large numbers of African-Americans, opening up doors to a ‘middle class’ life, in which one could live a life of modest comfort, own a home, send your children to college and retire in dignity and security.
But as the industrial unions began to decline, the numbers of African-Americans with better-paying union jobs also began to fall precipitously. As late as the 1980s, one out of every four African-American workers was a union member; today, it is closer to one in every seven. Last year, overall union membership fell by 304,000, but African-Americans accounted for 55% of that loss. As globalization decimates American basic manufacturing industry after American basic manufacturing industry, unionized African-American workers concentrated in those industries have lost their jobs, and their access to the ‘American dream.’ “The future of black workers is very bleak indeed,” the Times quotes William Julius Wilson, a Harvard professor of sociology who was written widely influential works on race and poverty, “if they lose their place in the union movement.”
The Times analysis has a curious, not entirely informed take on the issue, one which fails to take note of how African-American workers were organized into the labor movement in the past and which seems out of touch with current organizing realities. It suggests that it is somehow possible for unions to organize African-American workers as African-Americans, and not as part of a group of workers at a work site or in an industry, although it provides no models on how that might be done. Consequently, it presents the organizing efforts of both the AFL-CIO and the new splinter federation, Change to Win, as disappointing. Both federations talk of organizing all workers in a given work site or industry, and with this project in mind, they use the language of class, rather the language of race, in their work.
Yet race and class are interlocking phenomenon in American life, in ways that belie the stark opposition the Times’ analysis posits between them. To the extent that American workers, and especially America’s working poor, are organized into unions, African-Americans and other people of color will benefit disproportionately, because they are over-represented in those classes. Take the UFT’s current campaign, undertaken with ACORN, to organize 52,000 home day care workers in New York. The providers of home day care are predominantly African-American and Latina women, and so the beneficiaries of unionization would also be predominantly African-American and Latina women. But the UFT and ACORN is organizing all home day care providers – not a specific racial subset of them. Just as the decline in American industrial unions has harmed the economic well-being of African-Americans, an upsurge in union organizing will benefit them.
Martin Luther King understood this reality well. In a well-known passage cited by the Times, King wrote that the American labor movement “must concentrate its powerful forces on bringing economic emancipation to white and Negro by organizing them together in social equality.” The revitalization of the American labor movement is the sine qua non of the pursuit of economic justice in the United States.