The Black Lives Matter movement has focused a much-needed spotlight on our nation’s structural racism and the widespread criminalization of poverty. The world of work should not be immune from this ongoing review. Asserting that black lives matter ought to mean that the quality of black workers’ lives matters, too.
Exciting new labor campaigns like the Fight for $15 have the potential to significantly curb racial inequality. Overall, 42 percent of US workers make less than $15 per hour—but according to the National Employment Law Project, 54 percent of African-American workers earn less than that.
Outright racism helps explain this racial wage gap, as does the decline of organized labor. Once-thriving cities, predominantly black union towns like Detroit and Baltimore, have become hollowed-out economic shells. Between 1983 and 2007, the Center for Economic and Policy Research reports, the share of black workers represented by a union fell by 16 percent. The decline for white workers was only about half that: 8.7 percent. In the South, the region where most African Americans live, unions barely exist.
On paper, every American has the right to join a union. In real life, the rules that govern labor relations substantially limit efforts to build the black worker power needed for the African-American community to claim its fair share of the nation’s wealth. The National Labor Relations Act, the nation’s most basic set of rules for union organizing, denies basic protections to millions of workers, including public employees, independent contractors, employees of small businesses, domestic workers, and agricultural workers.
Also, the federal labor protections that do exist are weakly enforced, and employers can sidestep them through subcontracting. Free-trade agreements have further weakened labor power by encouraging the offshoring of good US manufacturing jobs and pitting workers against one another in a global race to the bottom. And the right-to-work laws that originally took root in the nation’s most racist states only compound the burden that unions face.
In the middle of the 20th century, organized labor kept capital from capturing a larger share of the wealth that American industries were creating. In recent decades, the absence of a strong union presence has allowed the 1 percent to funnel that wealth upward uncontested. We can’t fully address this situation until we link the struggle against racism to the struggle for the right of all workers to union representation.
To build the power needed to secure labor-law reform and an overhaul of trade policies, we need to integrate the labor movement into a broader coalition that includes civil-rights activists, women’s-rights groups, and faith-based organizations.
A strong constituency for such a change certainly exists, although it has not fully coalesced. Recent polling shows that about 87 percent of low-wage black workers approve of labor unions, a level of support almost 20 percent higher than among white workers. When women of color make up three-quarters of the workforce, unions win representational elections at a rate of 82 percent, compared with 35 percent in places where white men make up the majority.
Many seemingly unrelated groups have already begun working together to forge a broader movement to build black worker power. Last September in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Institute for Policy Studies hosted “Black Workers Matter: Organize the South,” a conference that brought together several national labor unions, the NAACP, the Moral Mondays movement, Black Lives Matter, and other civil-rights and religious activists.
As the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP and founder of the Moral Mondays movement, has pointed out, linking civil rights and worker rights hardly counts as a new idea. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called on the labor movement to invest heavily in worker organizing in the South, and the rallying cry at the March on Washington was “jobs and freedom.” To make black economic equality a real possibility in the 21st century, we need to infuse that idea with fresh energy.