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The American Prospect: Black Worker Centers: Building Workplace Power in the Communities

Photo by Jordan Brierley on Unsplash

(By Matthew Cunningham-Cook for The American Prospect) As organized labor grapples with the consequences of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’s landslide defeat at the Amazon mega-warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, one potential direction for the labor movement lies in the types of power- and base-building activities of Black worker centers.

That African American workers need to amass the power to better their conditions is beyond dispute. The American working class is in serious trouble, and Black workers most particularly. The median net wealth of Black families is just $24,100 (lower than any other racial group in America today), while that of white families stands at $188,200. Ongoing institutional and systemic racial discrimination against Black workers persists in housing, health care, education, and employment.

Far more than highly touted entrepreneurship, it’s union membership that has been the dam that has prevented the Black working class from being totally swept under by accelerating economic inequality. Surveys from the Economic Policy Institute show that the wages of unionized Black workers are 14.7 percent higher than those of their non-union counterparts, while the difference between unionized non-Hispanic white workers and their non-union counterparts is just 9.6 percent. Black workers are also 15 percent more likely than the population as a whole to be in unions. (Black Americans are also much more likely to be well represented in union leadership than in Fortune 500 management. Black Americans lead the largest union in the U.S., the National Education Association (Becky Pringle and Kim Anderson); the third-largest, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (Lee Saunders); and such other major unions as the United Auto Workers, the Painters, and AFGE, the largest federal employee union.

In the 1960s, before manufacturing was offshored and employers began opposing all efforts to unionize, the share of Black workers in unions reached nearly 40 percent, while the percentage of all workers in unions peaked in the 1950s at about one-third of the workforce. Today, however, just 10.8 percent of American workers belong to unions, and for Black workers, the percentage has dropped to 12.3 percent. Where once the largest employers, such as General Motors and Ford, were unionized and employed many tens of thousands of African Americans at union-scale wages, today’s largest employers, including Amazon, Walmart, FedEx, and Home Depot, are entirely non-union.

The disappearance of millions of unionized jobs has had a cumulatively devastating effect on Black Americans. Between 1979 and 2016, as the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has reported, “average hourly earnings of black men in the US fell from 80 percent of white male earnings to 70 percent of white male earnings.” For Black women, average earnings fell from near parity with white women to 82 percent of white female earnings.

Union organizing campaigns often depend on reservoirs of working-class consciousness in the workers they seek to organize. But with unions now spread so thinly across the country, and almost completely absent from many states, particularly in the South, organizers often have to build on other forms of consciousness—community, racial, gender. That’s why the point of entry to organizing workers—whether in a union or, given all the obstacles to forming unions, in other kinds of groups—may depend more on establishing a good record for the group in the community. Having a leader at the worksite who has organized people around issues either at the workplace or in their community—getting a discriminatory manager fired, keeping a public school open, getting a stop sign on the corner—will surely help. In Black communities, if that same leader has an understanding of workers’ history—knows what A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, or Fannie Lou Hamer did; knows that Martin Luther King was organizing sanitation workers when he was assassinated; or can connect criminal justice reform to workers’ rights—that’s even better. Read the full story here.

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