Black Labor’s Laborious Road Ahead

The economy hasn't been kind to organized labor -- especially black organized labor. Why it's poised for a comeback.

Digital Vision
Digital Vision

Notwithstanding Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s late-summer paean to a phantom economic recovery (does he have imaginary playmates as well?), this Labor Day will be the bleakest for America’s workers since the nadir of the Great Depression in 1932.

Back then, the unemployment rate was closing in on 25 percent. Foreclosures were up, morale down, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt wouldn’t be sworn in for almost another six months. Not that it seemed to matter all that much at the time. It was hardly a foregone conclusion that Roosevelt would lay the foundation for a modern industrial state, and what’s more, workers didn’t appear to have enough muscle to exert any real political pressure on the incoming administration. After more than a decade of aggressive union busting by big business, the number of workers belonging to unions had been shorn almost in half in the post World War I period, from 5 million in 1920 to 2.85 million in 1933.

As it turned out, organized labor had ’em right where they wanted.

Over the next 15 years, the nation’s trade unionists in general — and the integrated Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in particular — created the American middle class, transforming awful jobs in the packinghouses, auto factories, mines and mills into good jobs. With African Americans in the vanguard, trade unions pressured Roosevelt and Congress to pass the 1935 Wagner Act, giving employees the green light to organize. It enabled them to coax better pay, benefits and working conditions from employers and prodded the stodgy, conservative and mostly white union leadership to expand its sphere of influence beyond the shop floor.

Between 1935 and 1985, the number of blacks in labor unions skyrocketed from 50,000 to 3 million. In 1940s Chicago, an African-American stockyard worker named Charles Hayes led a faction of white, black and Asian workers who challenged and ultimately replaced the all-white leadership of the meatpackers’ union, and in the years that followed, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union supported Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott; helped bankroll the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s voter registration drives in the Deep South; and raised funds, staffed phone banks and helped get out the vote for Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington. Washington responded by recognizing, for the first time, city workers’ collective bargaining rights. (When he took office, nearly one in three union members was African American.)

So if history is any guide, America’s labor force is poised for a comeback. If nothing else, it certainly has the element of surprise.

Like their grandparents were in the early ’30s, workers in 2010 are on the losing end of a long and demoralizing rout at the hands of a financial elite and the bipartisan political class that largely does their bidding. By shipping well-paying factory jobs overseas, big business has hollowed out the country’s manufacturing sector and the ranks of the country’s labor unions, replacing well-paying, unionized, industrial jobs with low-paying, non-union jobs in a service sector that is, anthropologically speaking, not very different from the Colonial-era African porters who waited on European settlers hand and foot.

For blacks and Latinos, especially, wages are losing ground, jobless rates are flirting with Great Depression-era unemployment levels and union cards are becoming relics. The overall ratio of American workers who belong to trade unions has fallen precipitously since the ’50s from one in three to about one in 10 today. But perhaps more troubling for the American working class is that African Americans accounted for only 16 percent of all union members in 2006 — a couple of years before the latest economic downturn.

The steep decline imposes costs not just on workers’ paychecks but on American democracy as well. Just as strong labor unions have been integral to the struggle for nationalized health care systems in Canada and Europe, egalitarian tax and trade policies, and human rights, America’s organized labor movement has proved an effective advocate for the expansion of liberal democracy. For instance, dockworkers in the ’80s refused to unload South African ships as a protest against apartheid. Often, such changes have happened only when African Americans have played a leading role.