African-American workers have had a love/hate relationship with labor unions. 

However, the facts are:  African-Americans gained more than any other group from the benefits and wages afforded union workers. 

On the flip side, the decline of unions has had a larger negative impact on African-Americans workers.  Their decline leaves African-Americans workers unsure whether to support, or not support, revitalization of America’s labor movement. 

Unions, like the rest of America, wanted little to do with African Americans post slavery. The country spent decades trying to figure out how to assimilate “the Negro” into the American economic system, but it actually took the employment demands of World War II for African Americans to finally get a foothold in the system. As American centered the 1950s, any unions began shedding their racist and xenophobic legacies and opened their organizations to African Americans.

Eager to escape explicitly racist policies and practices common in many nonunion workplaces, African Americans moved to union shops in record numbers. At a peak, more than 40% for African American men and nearly 25% for African American women in the private sector were union members. These exceptional organization rates helped raise African American wages and narrowed racial pay disparities.

What Happened to Unions?

The US labor movement was once the core institution fighting for average workers. Over the last half century, its ranks have been decimated. The share of the private sector workforce that is organized has fallen from 35% to approximately 6.5%.

The decline gained speed in the 1980s and 1990s, spurred by a combination of economic and political developments. The opening up of overseas markets increased competition in many highly organized industries. Outsourcing emerged as a popular practice among employers seeking to compete in a radically changed environment. The deregulation of industries not threatened by overseas competition, such as trucking, also placed organized labor at a disadvantage as new nonunion firms gained market edge through lower labor costs.

Simultaneously, US employers developed a set of legal, semi-legal and illegal practices that proved effective at ridding establishments of existing unions and preventing nonunion workers from organizing. Common practices included threatening union sympathizers with dismissal, holding mandatory meetings with workers warning of the dire consequences (real or imagined) of a unionization campaign and hiring permanent replacements for striking workers during labor disputes.

A sharp political turn against labor aided these employer efforts. President Reagan’s public firing of striking air traffic controllers vividly demonstrated to a weakened labor movement that times had changed.

While outside forces may have seriously contributed to the decline of unions, Lowell Turner, professor of International and Comparative Labor and Director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University, isn’t ready to absolve unions from some responsibility.

“Unions did not adapt as well as they could. They were afraid to innovate, and they got away from being a real labor movement to being business unions administering contracts,” says Turner. “They held on to their ways too long.”

Why Does it Matter?

Good-paying union jobs and manufacturing employment were once a prominent foundation for the country’s middle class, but these jobs have been eviscerated in recent history—with a disproportionate effect on African Americans.

Since the 1980s, union membership has plummeted for all demographic groups across the United States. For Black workers, however, union jobs have disappeared significantly faster than they have for White workers.

In 1983, 31.7% of Black workers were union members or covered by a union contract, compared to 22.2% percent of White workers. By 2015, union representation rates for Black and White workers had fallen to 14.2% (a 55.2% drop) for Blacks and 12.5% (a 43.6% drop) for Whites.

A major reason for the fall in unionization has been the large decrease in manufacturing jobs. Yet the overall decline in the role of manufacturing has actually been more acute for African Americans than it has been for Whites.

Prior to the 1990s, both Black and Whites were equally likely to be employed in manufacturing. In 1979, about 24% of both Black and Whites were employed in manufacturing. In 1990, both had declined, but about 18% of both Black and White workers were employed in manufacturing.

By 2015 the share of African Americans in manufacturing was only 8.6%, compared to 11.2% of White workers. In other words, a Black worker was 23.2% less likely to have a manufacturing job than a White worker—a substantial blow considering that manufacturing jobs typically pay higher wages than other industries.

Manufacturing employers aren’t hiring African American workers like they did in prior years. Even though the Black share of the overall U.S. workforce grew between 1979 and 2015, the Black share of the manufacturing workforce did not increase commensurately during that time and actually declined.

Beyond wages

Research shows that the decline of unions is a significant cause of rising wage inequality among male workers. Recent work also demonstrates a strong correlation between union membership and intergenerational earnings mobility. African Americans may be disproportionately losing these positive benefits of unionization.

A large body of research has found that union membership spurs civic participation among non-elite Americans. Voting, for example, is a practice that goes up with increases in income and education. Unions helped to counteract class-based inequality in political participation, ensuring that elected officials heard the policy desires of millions of non-elite Americans.

The combination of the downturn in manufacturing jobs and the decline in unionization has disproportionately affected African American workers. As we pursue policies to improve the quality of work, we should prioritize those which benefit the groups who have lost more of the good jobs that the labor market used to provide.

Can Unions Regain Their Power?

Unions understand they have a problem and they’re trying new and innovative approaches.

You would think, a good strong issue, and a good strong success could actually get unions moving.

You would also think a low unemployment rate would give workers more power.

It all seems pretty straight forward, with the issue of a minimum wage with little if any real buying power being a key issue and a 3.4% unemployment rate as a possible tipping point, but nothing is as simple as it seems, especially in today’s strange and adversarial times.

Many of the issues workers want — expanded family leave and an increased minimum wage, just to name two – must be passed by politicians. With Republicans controlling the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Senate and most state houses, there’s not much support for change.

Unions understand they’ll need political power to get real change, which requires more than just union members.

“Unions need to be a part of a broader push for social change,” said Turner. “Look at the minimum wage campaigns happening now at the state and city level. That’s not happening out of the blue. That’s being driven by an alliance of traditional unions and the alt labor movement and their community allies. And that’s what generates social change.”

Realizing they need to be part of a broader push for social change, labor is looking for alliances with other groups. Those alliances should prove beneficial in the long run, but a major issue Labor must address is the fact that 45% of their members are voting Republican, and often against their better or best interest.

These are strange times.

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