It’s not coincidental that at this very moment both the labor and racial justice movements stand at a crossroads in our nation’s consciousness. The people who fight to undo worker’s rights and assault unions are often the very same folks who craft laws and policies that allowed Trayvon Martin’s killer to walk free, that disenfranchise black voters and expand the use of racial profiling. Moreover, the public rhetoric of post-racialism is closely tied to the false promise of rampant corporate profiteering that casts the labor movement as an irrelevant “special interest.”
In 2013 the landscape of the national labor movement could charitably be described as “receding.” Last year the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a national union membership rate of 11.3 percent — down from 11.8 percent in 2011.The ever-declining number of union members in 2012 was 14.4 million, while in 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers.
But there are other figures and in some ways they are even more revealing. In 2012, among major race and ethnicity groups, black workers had a higher union membership rate (13.4 percent) than white workers (11.1 percent), Asian (9.6 percent), or Hispanic (9.8 percent). And black men had the highest union membership rate — 14.8 percent.
These statistics are not lost on labor leaders wishing to reverse their movement’s declining numbers. Said Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO:
“There’s no evil that’s inflicted more pain and more suffering than racism—and it’s something we in the labor movement have a special responsibility to challenge…. Because we know, better than anyone else, how racism is used to divide working people.”
In the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial Mr. Trumka’s words should remind those of us who are working for economic justice that we must not do so in isolation, but build a vision that is tied to broader questions of social justice, paying particular attention to racial justice — or run the risk of becoming irrelevant to large swaths of our base.
Trumka’s charge that the labor movement has a “special responsibility to challenge” an intrinsically racist system, is a call to action, a blueprint to address racism by championing policies that are aimed directly at relieving the plight of African Americans — whose unemployment rate has stood at double the national rate for the last four decades. The statistics illustrating black loyalty to the labor movement show that behind the numbers lies a reality that often goes either ignored or not properly exploited to the benefit of that movement.
The historic turnaround in the labor movement to include black workers in its ranks was both an ethical and pragmatic decision, as must be our commitment to pay consistent and fervent attention to America’s current conditions.
“The labor movement must step up our fight for economic justice for all,” Leo Gerard, the international president of the United Steelworkers has said. “It is our duty to make that issue a priority if we truly want to create a more perfect union.”
Unions can no longer afford to adhere to the failed “rising tide lifts all boats” rhetoric. Such an approach ignores the specific conditions under which the vast majority of black people arrived in this country, the legacy of chattel slavery, the assignment of non-personage and super-exploitation of black labor, not to mention the earlier role of organized labor in perpetuating such conditions. If labor cannot utilize everything in its toolkit to turn the tide, then it and the aspirations of millions of black, brown, yellow, red and yes, white people will be tragically marginalized.
“the labor movement must step up our fight for economic justice for all. Statistics show that these problems inflict a disproportionate amount of pain on African Americans and on young black men in particular. It is our duty to make that issue a priority if we truly want to create a more perfect union.”
-Leo W. Gerard, International President, USW