Michigan Labor Fight Hurts Blacks More

(The Root) — On the heels of a major loss for organized labor in Wisconsin earlier this year, when the state's governor signed a law limiting collective bargaining rights (a law later struck down by a judge and pending appeal), unions are now under siege in the state of Michigan. On Tuesday Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a series of controversial "right to work" laws, which will limit the powers of the state's organized labor force.

Among the measures: Union dues can no longer be compulsory in private workplaces with labor contracts, which critics fear will sap union finances and clout. The move has sparked national outrage among progressives, as well as fear among many members of the working class. But black working men and women may have particular reason to worry.


According to a report, being in a union puts black Americans noticeably ahead, economically, of their nonunionized black counterparts. "On average, unionization raised black workers' wages 12 percent — about $2 per hour — relative to black workers with similar characteristics who were not in unions," a 2008 report from the Center for Economic Policy Research (pdf) found. Given that blacks overindex for labor union membership, these wage differentials have a greater impact on overall black earning power.

The report went on to note that for benefits, like health insurance and pensions, unionization had an even more profound effect on the economic stability of black workers. "African-American workers who were in unions were 16 percentage points more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and 19 percentage points more likely to have a pension plan than similar nonunion workers," according to the report. For low-wage jobs, the benefits of union membership were even more pronounced. Black Americans in low-wage jobs who were unionized were 20 percent more likely to have insurance and 28 percent more likely to have pension plans than their nonunionized low-wage counterparts.


One could argue that unions also had a particular impact on black Americans this year by playing a significant role in the re-election of President Barack Obama. Despite the president's struggle with white male voters throughout the campaign, he managed to win states like Wisconsin and Michigan, in part on the strength of union support.

It is worth noting that unions' role in this year's presidential election goes right to the heart of why some are so concerned about the new Michigan laws. Nearly 20 percent of the state's workforce consists of union members, making the state a sort of unofficial capital of union power in the U.S. Since the new legislation makes paying dues in private-sector unions voluntary, imagine what could happen to the vital role that unions have played in political campaigns, providing both manpower on the ground as volunteers and financial muscle. Could they still afford to fund media blitzes and other endeavors to support progressive candidates and progressive causes — and, equally impactful, to oppose conservative ones?

As I have written before, the public reaction to the Wisconsin labor fight shows that our nation is increasingly divided over the role of unions. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker easily survived a recall effort after signing his state's controversial union laws. Yet while the future of unions in America may be increasingly in question, the financial benefits to working families appears to be pretty clear.

What is not clear is what unions can do to stop losing the war over communications, messaging and image with those working- and middle-class voters whose support of anti-union conservatives have caused union power to wane significantly in recent years. Such support has given power to anti-union governors in what were once union-friendly states.


The anti-union laws signed by Govs. Walker and Snyder have made them conservative darlings, and since they're from swing states, it's very possible that either could end up on a presidential ticket in the near future. It remains to be seen if, by then, unions will still be in a position of sufficient power to help prevent either candidate from making it to the White House, as they did with another anti-union governor from a union state: Michigan-born Mitt Romney. 

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter

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