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American Unions and the Pursuit of Economic Justice

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.



  • 1 Labor Blog
    · Oct 25, 2005 at 5:33 pm


    FIRST PUBLISHED ON EDWIZE American workers have paid a significant price for the decline of the American labor movement declined over the last three decades. A strong, vibrant labor movement benefits all workers: unionization has spillover effects into…

  • 2 institutional memory
    · Oct 25, 2005 at 5:38 pm

    The Times, They Are A’Changin’

    It’s a tad simplistic, to be sure, but the stark difference between an earlier time and the present one can be summarized all too easily.

    Years ago, most union members realized that they were struggling to move up in the world. Organized labor was all-too-cognizant that resentment of their improved condition was rampant, and that they would have to overcome public sentiment to keep their lives changing for the better.

    Nowadays, many union members – including all too many members of this very union – reflect a sense of entitlement, and think that the rest of the world sees things their way. They truly believe that the gravy train is on the express track. They are sadly mistaken.

    I don’t think that these well-meaning but delusional educators understand how tenuous their situation is. In fact, they’ll probably demonstrate enormous resentment toward these comments.

    See below.

  • 3 shouldhavegonetomeds
    · Oct 25, 2005 at 7:19 pm

    Institutional Memory:

    Are you just here to promote the union’s spin? I genuinely don’t know. Do you know any doctors personally? Paricularly young ones (any age will do though) Talk about a feeling of entitlement. They feel that because they went through hurdles and studied so hard for medical school the world should be theirs.

    Now even teachers with Master’s degrees represent a very rarified, very limited part of the labor market. No more than 15 per cent of the population holds Master’s degrees. 85 per cent of the population does not. No one gets a Masters degree in life just to be nice. YOu are making an investment. And frankly you want a return on that investment, otherwise you would have taken the money spent on the Master’s and invested it elsewhere. You are hoping though for a better choice of employment. You don’t want to have to “tote that barge, lift that bale”!! all your life. You do not aspire to the life of a laborer.

    Let’s take Randi. Not to attack or demonize her but as an example. When she elected to go past teaching as it were and attend law school, she was investing in herself, hoping to improve her lot over classroom teacher. She could have stayed teaching after all and bought IBM stock with the money she spent for law school That would have netted her a teaching job with pension, social security and all that extra IBM stock for her later years.

    But she didn’t, she invested in Randi. And she did very well didn’t she. No matter how much the Repubicans mess up the economy she is going to make a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year easily.( I don’t resent her the money, I suspect she is partner material.)

    Likewise consider your nearest periodontist or neurosurgeon. They may or may not be aware of the overall economy, but frankly they don’t want to hear too much about it. They expect to do will perhaps foolishly on some level, but that is what they expect.

    Now teachers too invested quite substantially in ourselves and it is not much more than Econ 101 that we expect some real return for that investment. Call it entitlement, but as someone with an MBA I would call it just return of investment (ROI in business argot). It is not wrong or unfair to expect that. Ultimately, no one is going to invest if their is no return on the investment. The reality is only as a moral person does a dentist have to ponder a Wal Mart employee’s wages too much. When she went to dental school she separated herself from anything that mundane. Again, only a fool believes someone gets such an advanced degree solely to benefit society. They do it to benefit themselves.

    Why are teachers fools or delusiosnal for expecting a return and a decent return at that on their investment? Everyone else with graduate education expect that. Where is is logical that we would elect to be diferent? Indeed were it to become general knowledge that education provides no return on investment graduate schools can expect to be empty and rightfully so.

  • 4 NYC Educator
    · Oct 25, 2005 at 7:37 pm

    Institutional Mamory is right. Unity did the best it could do, and anyone who disagrees is “well’meaning but delusional.”


  • 5 Kombiz
    · Oct 25, 2005 at 7:39 pm

    I don’t want these conversations to go astray, but everywhere I’ve been in this country unions are consistently under attack. I have several friends who are teachers in California, one of them actually considers themselves a conservative Republican. They all without a doubt feel under the gun of Arnold’s efforts against their profession. I received an email from one today with an article from the Orange County register attacking the basic premise behind tenure and teacher unionism.

    In places that I’ve been where unions are stronger it has a net positive effect for the entire workforce, as I think Leo’s take on the Time’s article points out.

    On the issue of teachers unions, there isn’t a doubt that teachers should be doing better because of their investment. I think it’s important to change the narrative of that conversation from the one that dominates the corporate owned media in this day and age. I think for whatever people make of edwize, it’s an attempt to do just that and recast that narrative to something that celebrates a strong unionized workforce where everyone does better. We’re one of the first, and hopefully others will follow along. In San Francisco health care workers have set up a blog to document their strike against managment. I invite everyone to go visit them and leave a comment of solidarity. One of the things that people get out that blog, and I hope this blog is the amount of passion people into their professions. Which is partly why we wanted to have new teachers writing about their experiences. There will be more along the lines of the commitment that teachers have to put in to be able to teach, but this blog, like any online blog has limatations, it can start to change the narrative little, by little.

    On the downside, there’s very little a comment here seen by 50 people, at most, will have. Though I think a conversation helps move the narrative forward.

  • 6 NYC Educator
    · Oct 25, 2005 at 8:05 pm

    Actually, many California teachers actually support Arnold’s effort to remove political power from the unions. I think they’re mistaken, which is why I advise colleagues not to withdraw COPE funds, despite their frustrations with UFT leadership.

    Nonetheless, if you read EdWonk,or Polski, or the right-wing teacher blogs (of course)you’ll notice a pattern of dissatisfaction with the NEA. They claim that union leadership is unresponsive to their requests, and give many examples of their frustration.

    As someone who’s sent polite letters to the UFT, only to have them just as politely ignored, I know how they feel. I don’t endorse demagogues like Arnold, I know what he’s trying to do to the unions, and I disagree completely.

    The California teachers who support the proposition will live to regret it if it passes.

    But I know how they feel.

  • 7 shouldhavegonetomeds
    · Oct 25, 2005 at 8:17 pm


    Therein is the problem. Your friend is a teacher but thinks he is a conservative Republican, methinks he is a real jack ass!! However, it was jack ass teachers here who loved Giuliani and voted for him with relish. And Bloomberg too!! I hope that they finally realize the Republican ticket is not for unionized workers. (Note that in those slick highly targetted, sophisticated ads the dwarf runs he leaves off that he is Republican.)

    Still my points are airtight and just represent a high level understanding of Econ 101. You invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in present value funds of money, time and effort that blue collar workers just did not. As such you put a barrier between yourself and them. Just like Randi put a barrier between herself and other teachers by going to law school.

    we can and should expect to be paid.

    By the way a good thing about California is that the teachers and nurses are fighting back mad as hell more and more finally getting it. That hasn’t happened here. We are not on our phone banks working with nurses who don’t have a contract in city hospitals or fire people. We are tacitly supporting Bloomberg just like we moronically supported Pataki.

  • 8 JennyD
    · Oct 25, 2005 at 8:34 pm

    There are a number of edubloggers who have serious issues with the California teachers union. And these are not right-wingers. These are teachers. I’d urge you to go read Polski3 and others. Things are different on the left coast. I’m not a member of a teachers union so I don’t want to judge, but I can say that the dialogue here is quite different than what I observe from elsewhere.

  • 9 NYC Educator
    · Oct 25, 2005 at 9:15 pm

    I didn’t mean to imply that anyone I named was a right-winger. Sorry if I gave that impression. I just meant the right-wingers, though perhaps for different reasons, agreed with them.

  • 10 MichaelB
    · Oct 25, 2005 at 9:39 pm

    The situation facing the labor movement is scary. Unions are at their lowest point ever in terms of membership. In a few states, recently elected Republican governors signed executive orders doing away with the collective bargaining agreements that their state employees worked under. Our biggest threat right now is not Klein and Bloomberg, but the decline of organized labor.

    There are several unions that have devoted large amounts of time, energy and money to organize new members – HERE, SEIU, etc. They’ve managed to do so even though their members pay much lower dues than we do. As far as I can tell, the AFT has not distinguished itself in this area and, in fact, supports the current ineffective AFL-CIO leadership. Does anyone know what the AFT does with our dues money, and how much they receive from us? If Labor is going to keep from becoming extinct, teachers are going to have to be part of the solution. And that means spending money on organizing new workers.

  • 11 Kombiz
    · Oct 25, 2005 at 10:32 pm

    Michael – As Leo mentioned the UFT is currently leading, with NYSUT, a drive to organize 50,000 + home day care workers. The question of organizing would be an interesting one to bring up on this blog in the future.

    Shouldagonetomeds – I’ve enjoyed your political comments here, but my friend is actually a very nice guy. Having grown up in California I was suprised at how many teachers whom I thought were conservative were angry with the propositions and Arnold. One of the bloggers that I read, and whom I’ve talked to who fits that conservative definition, was also very unhappy with some of the propositions. I’m in no position to comment on California politics/unions but it’s my impression, and from reading I’ve done of polling posted on blogs, that there are very few teachers/union members who are supporting the anti-union propositions in Calfornia.

    NYC Educator, I’ve forwarded your emails. I’ve thought of a way to get some of the commenters from this board together so that we can have a conversation in person. I’m sure I’ll talk to you and some others over email.

    Jenny, one of the things that’s great about this blog is that unlike most blogs, it’s not a community of self selecting groups of people. We have a link from the UFT’s website to the blog, and NYC teachers are a very diverse group of individuals. So the comments will break out in different ways than any of us who have read, and followed blogs are used to. At the beginning we had a commenter from Texas who betrayed a sense that he/she was quite anti-union. Since then there are a lot more teachers who are commenting, and so the tone of the comments have shifted. As we get more comfortable blogging, and the community settles in to talking about public education I’m sure the we’ll continue to get different perspectives.

  • 12 shouldhavegonetomeds
    · Oct 25, 2005 at 11:03 pm


    I have a very close friend in LA schools so I am somewhat famiiiar with the scene there. Yes, I do believe the teachers there are waking up and realizing that these Republican bastards are our mortal enemies and they could lose everything= tenure, pensions,etc, the governor there has made no secret that he would like to terminate everything-except his own filthy wealth of course. Still the fact that any teacher ever thinks of themselves as Conservative Republican scares me. I know where my bread will be buttered better for sure.

    Of course, even here people attack Randi, but I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts she doesn’t vote Republican and she doesn’t have a nuclear family to support.
    But let’s be honest we have *** hole teachers barely pulling down 65K with a spouse and kids often thinking candidates like Giulianni and Bloomberg are good for them. And we wouldn’t be in this mess except for these morons because those guys could never have won without Republican votes. I knew we were in trouble the first time that Giulianni got in, but teachers loved it. In some strange way I feel very vindicated now. But hey there had to be a lot of suffering under Hoover and the assault of the Bonus Army, before we switched to Roosevelt. My feeling is here people haven’t suffered enough yet “malheureusement”

  • 13 institutional memory
    · Oct 25, 2005 at 11:39 pm


    There is one item on which we are in total agreement: Any teacher who voted for Giuliani was, indeed, a fool. I’m no great fan of Bloomberg (his choice of Chancellors, the inimitable Joel “Society Pages” Klein, is particularly egregious), but compared to Rudy, Mayor Mike is FDR.

  • 14 shouldhavegonetomeds
    · Oct 26, 2005 at 12:30 am

    Not really institutional memory,

    He is Rudy with a smile. It is the same Repubican Bullsh–. Heis smart and he packages himself for New York. It is just Repubicanism wrapped so New Yorkers will accept it. Nurses are in their third year in our hospitals with no contract He closed fire houses, doubled fines, is not all that nice to the gay community, etc. Yes, he has more tact than Rudy, he is not as totally crude as Rudy, but hey who would be , but that only makes the man more dangerous,

    Hey but that’s just my two cents.

  • 15 JennyD
    · Oct 26, 2005 at 9:44 am

    That’s fine. Thanks. I just know from reading teacher blogs that some of the top union officials are not elected by the members, and also that many policy decisions and decisions to spend union dues are made without consulting the membership. This was done recently even as the union increased dues. So there are some irritable union members in CA who think they are being forced to pay more without having any say in how the money is spent, or what leadership makes decisions.

    Another thing: The CA Union does not have a weblog that would open up that discussion more broadly.

  • 16 Leo Casey
    · Oct 26, 2005 at 10:21 am

    Michael B:

    Your information concerning union organizing is incorrect.

    One of the reasons why the split in the AFL-CIO was so problematic was that the unions did not divide neatly along the lines of those who have done real organizing, and those who have not. While the SEIU and UNITE-HERE have done serious organizing, the record of the rest of the Change to Win — Hoffa’s Teamsters, the Laborers, the Carpenters, and the UFCW — pales by comparison. And there are unions that remained in the AFL-CIO — the AFT, AFSCME and the CWA being most prominent — that have organizing records every bit as impressive as the SEIU. Over the past twenty years, when the labor movement was losing members left and right, the AFT more than doubled its membership. And the UFT’s organizing drive among home day care providers is certainly one of, if not the, most important organizing drives in the labor movement today.

    Perhaps one of these days I will blog about organizing, because the reality is more complex than one often finds portrayed in the news media. While I do not want to suggest that the question of will on the part of the unions is not important, it is not the sole determinant by any means. One of the reasons why SEIU, the AFT, AFSCME and the CWA have had the success they have had, against the general trend, is that our organizing, for the most part, is in the public sector and in service industries. Consequently, the employer can not be as hostile as he is in the private sector, and the effects of globalization, such as outsourcing abroad, are minimal. You can’t teach children how to read, provide daycare, provide health care or janitorial services from half-way around the world. There is a reason why the UAW is madly organizing graduate students, and it is not because they have more in common with autoworkers than they do with teachers or nurses. Rather, it is because it is a whole lot easier to be successful at organizing graduate students [at least before the Bush NLRB stripped away their right to organize in private institutions] than it is at organizing auto parts manufactuers.

    This is why the organizing of UNITE-HERE bears careful study. UNITE-HERE has prioritized organizing as much as any union, but their results are uneven. When they do organizing in the service sector, especially hotels and laundries, they are successful, but they have had a much harder go of it in the textile industries, which have been ravaged by globalization. What that suggests is that who one is trying to organize is at least as important as the will to organize. The unions with successful organizing records should not be so quick to crow about their successes, given that they all are organizing in areas which are much easier to organize. Organizing Wal-Mart is going to be a helluva lot more difficult than organizing teachers and nurses. But the future of the American labor movement may very well rest on successfully organizing it, just as it rested on successfully organizing the large automobile corporations in the 1930s.

  • 17 Leo Casey
    · Oct 26, 2005 at 10:25 am

    BTW, SEIU and UNITE-HERE have levied special dues for organizing, and as a proportion of members’ incomes, their dues are much more than the AFT’s.

  • 18 divina
    · Oct 26, 2005 at 11:12 am

    No one disputes that a person with a Masters degree deserves respect and a good income. That IS the reason why people make investments into education. It isn’t the only reason.

    But to compare oneself with neurosurgeons, or even family doctors is really not a valid comparison. The training is far more rigorous, and, they work much longer hours than the average professional.

    One would better make the argument by comparing oneself with a different sort of profession, say, an MBA. Perhaps an accountant or an economist.

    In order to get better pay, you have to dispell myths about teachers. It isn’t really about the investment you made into your education. It is what people are willing to pay for it. For example, the first chair violin player at the Metropolitan Opera doesn’t make 6 figures, yet they are probably one of the best violinist in the world. That person probably started their musical education no later than the age of 8. They only get paid what people are willing to pay them through ticket sales etc.

    So if you want better pay, you have to educate average citizens to what exactly you do, what your investment has been, what you do off hours etc.

    For instance, the average New Yorker does not know that teachers possess masters degrees. The average New Yorker assumes that when kids are not in school, then the teacher is not working either.

    On the flip-side, many teachers on this blog assume that the average 9-5 employee works only 9-5, never at home, never after hours, and always with overtime pay. That also isn’t true.

    This is how you make in-roads. After all, every person working feels that they deserve better pay. I would guess in most instances they are right. But you have to invest yourself in educating people who can make a difference into championing your cause. That means educating parents and letting it trickle down.

  • 19 Frank48
    · Oct 26, 2005 at 2:53 pm

    This is another area where the UFT is wek – public relations. You’d think that EVERY student in this system is failing and reduced to a life of failure. This is far from the case. Why not an ad campaign which illustrates the successes in this system ?

  • 20 Peter Goodman
    · Oct 26, 2005 at 4:03 pm

    Elected officials, inner city parents, foundations, large corporations, left-wingers, right-wingers, a coalition from across the spectrum are wondering whether traditional public schools are the proper place to educate inner city children. Some argue for small more personal schools, others argue for charter type schools in the public sector, some for charter schools outside the public sector, others for vouchers: let the parents make their own choice. Labor unions representing teacher are an impediment. Why pay teachers higher salaries when there is no relation between salary and results?
    Maybe, just maybe, if you remove impediments from union contracts and create some type of productivity related to remuneration public schools can survive.
    I’m not talking about radicals from the right or the left, I’m talking about influential policy makers from across the spectrum.
    If we ignore these forces, continue to flail away at union leadership, act as the proverbial ostrich with our head in the sand we too will become like the UAW, chasing after graduate students to organize because auto workers are no longer an “organizable” pool. We will become the dinosaurs of the next decade.

    Unless we figure out a way of making public school work better we may not have public schools.

    Many of the sharpest critics of public schools have been our traditional allies.

    Bloomberg and Klein are easy targets today – the parents, the ministers and the employers off the children we teach could become the enemies of tomorrow.

    No one is going to “leave us alone and let us teach,” unless our teaching shows results. Yes, poverty and crimes and poor housing, and the list goes on and on are awful impediments to being successful – but – the clock is ticking – and if we don’t “get it right” soon the very concept of public schools will become an anachronism.

  • 21 bstamatis
    · Oct 26, 2005 at 6:06 pm

    But the answer is much more complicated than expressed here by all the commentors. “No one goes into teaching to become rich,” is a familiar refrain in conversations about the profession with this freqently used rejoinder: “But none of us took a vow of poverty, either.”

    We can see what a society values by noting how much it pays its workers.

  • 22 shouldhavegonetomeds
    · Oct 26, 2005 at 7:52 pm

    I am confused by the comments here!!!

    It seems to be “teachers should be paid but………”

    Divina seems to think doctors deserve so much more. To me that is laughable. If you really understand medicine and economics in this country you would know that 80 per cent of all money for medical care is spent on the last two years of life when little can be done apart from annoying the patient. Babies delivered, scrapes, bruises, the hernia, broken bone, rashes for the rest of us come to very little of the total cost of medical care.

    Hence a teacher who prepares a child for his whole life which will typically span decades struggles for pennies while a doctor, in many ways just a licensed thief, makes out like a bandit, almost literally, performing largely useless, invasive, instrusive, unsettling and upsetting procedures on an octogenarian.

    And before you jump into defend your favorite thief I mean doctor, one study called the Dartmouth study compared the health and longevity of people living in Minnesotta with people in the Miami area which has twice the per capita doctors to see if the Miami area residents had better health care or longer life span. THEY DID NOT, of course. The only difference was that in Miami a person is more likely to spend the last six months in a hospital or nursing home going through every last dime they saved in their entire lifetimes.

    Furthermore this whole business of public education so being on the defensive is ridiculous as well. Our teachers have problems due to sociological issues from the students’ families. The fact that we are somehow guilty by association is as bizarre as blaming the oncologists at Sloan Kettering for the deaths of their cigarettes smoking patients. Our union has done a very poor job of noting the correlation between poverty and low reading, math scores.
    Why not aggressive ads: This is Sharon pregnant at 15 with her second child, Her mother has AIDS, she has never seen her father. Every day UFT members struggle to make a differenc in the lives of Sharon and so many of her peers, etc. etc.

    This is Jose he misses school a lot because his grandmother, a crack addict, isn’t able to help him get ready. He waa born prematurely because his own mother used drugs and alcohol throughout the pregnancy. Every day UFT members struggle to make a difference int he lives of Jose and so many of his peers,etc.

  • 23 northbrooklyn
    · Oct 28, 2005 at 9:42 pm

    Peter-when a businesswoman worries about producivity, she thinks about producing her company’s product quicker and faster with less of an outlay of money. This requires fewer employees. She also knows that she has to constantly retrain and reeducate her current employees.

    But, let’s talk about productivity in public school education system. A system that educates 88% of the children from the ages of 6 to 18 in this country. What is the best way to insure productivity in the classroom? You know the answer better than I do-you’re in lots more classrooms and schools than I am-it’s smaller classes. Fewer students in the room mean the teacher can accomplish more in a specific period of time. The inverse of the business model. However, the training is key, so, keep training our teachers and continue to offer them lots and lots of training and retraining. Let’s have a 60 hr. above a masters salary differencial and a PHD differencial. You also know this works and has been discussed by the rank and file for years.
    Let management, doe and uft, focus on making those two things a reality. This will take at least two years to implement. Bureaucracy moves slowly because you cannot ask these people to focus on lots of different needs at once. Two major things will do.
    What’s the old phrase? Keep it simple sally. We need to talk and nag until they get sick of hearing us and just lower the class size and give the teacher lots of great stuff to learn.

  • 24 NYC Educator
    · Oct 29, 2005 at 12:21 pm

    Small classes, AND good teachers–that’s the recipe.

  • 25 MichaelB
    · Oct 30, 2005 at 5:41 pm


    Clearly, my point was that the AFT, as far as I am aware, is not putting enough of its resources into organizing compared to other unions. If this is incorrect, I’d like to see the numbers.

    As for dues, we both know that unions’ resources are determined by the amount of money collected from members, not the ratio of dues to members’ salaries.