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.

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Digital Vision

“Blacks and leaders of color tend to occupy the more forward-looking and progressive wing of the movement with progressive whites,” Touissaint said. “When it abandons that flank is when the labor movement is identified less as a force of change and more as a special interest. That’s when it gets into trouble.”

To recapture that lost moral standing, the TWU is one of nearly 150 trade unions and civil rights groups sponsoring an October 2 rally in Washington, D.C., for “jobs, justice and education for all.” Organizers — led by Service Employees International Union Local 1199 President George Gresham and NAACP President and Chief Executive Officer Ben Jealous, both African American — hope the event will reclaim the nation’s political narrative from right-wing factions like Fox News and pundit Glenn Beck as well as reinvigorate the progressive political movement that shaped the New Deal.

Both are necessary to re-route an Obama administration that has steered off course, according to labor activists who are disappointed in the president’s inability — or unwillingness — to deliver a national, single-payer health-care system, a large-scale jobs program or homeowner relief. They are also leery of his administration’s antagonism toward teachers’ unions and a lack of assertiveness in pressing Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which, by allowing employees to join a union merely by checking a card on a box, would likely have been the most transformative piece of progressive legislation since the New Deal.

Removing the barrier to unionization imposed by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act — which greatly weakened the Wagner Act — would have gone a long way toward rebuilding the postwar middle class in America because, as one labor activist said, “you can’t offshore jobs at Walmart and Home Depot.”

The Obama administration, Touissaint said, “is trying to find its conscience. The results so far have not been encouraging. But we can’t lay all the blame at Obama’s feet.” He pointed to striking civil service workers in South Africa who took to the streets last month in a nationwide strike for higher wages and eventually forced government officials back to the negotiating table. “The popular movement did not retreat to their living rooms. They have not forgotten that the agent of change is struggle and resistance. We forgot that.”

Jon Jeter is the author of Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People (W.W. Norton) and, with Robert E. Pierre, the author of A Day Late and a Dollar Short: High Hopes and Deferred Dreams in Obama’s Post-Racial America (John Wiley and Sons).

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