Conservative economist Walter E. Williams wants black people to know that unions are out to get them:
“[W]ho are the major supporters of the minimum wage law who spent millions and millions of dollars lobbying for its increase, it turns out to be labor unions. And you have to ask ‘Well, how come labor unions are the major supporters of the minimum-wage law when their members make $40 or $50 an hour often?” Williams said. “Why should they be concerned about a $5 or $7 wage? It turns out the minimum-wage law helps eliminate some of the competition. […]”
“Well, they always have done that,” Williams said. “If you look at the justification for the David-Bacon Act, which is the federal minimum wage or super minimum-wage if you look at the legislative debate in 1931 unions were major supporters and they want to protect white workers from having to compete with black workers in construction.”
I’m not sure if this is a trend or not, but lately, conservatives have taken to presenting traditionally liberal institutions as sinister threats to the well-being of African Americans. Earlier this year, to use one example, conservative activists seized on the high abortion rate among African American women in order to accuse Planned Parenthood of “planned genocide” against black people. As for unions, Williams isn’t the first conservative to bring up racism as a way to discredit the modern labor movement; last month, Andrew Breitbart’s “Big Government” blog did the same, highlighting a few instances of discrimination in order to present unions as opposed to the interests of black people.
Ignoring, for a moment, the extent to which this message comes from a political movement which has long trafficked in racial scare tactics, it’s worth noting the degree to which unions have played a tremendous role in achieving civil rights and building economic security among African Americans. Lee Saunders, the secretary-treasurer for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), offered a take on this last week:
“Twenty-one percent of all black workers are public employees, making the public sector the largest employer of black workers, according to a recent University of California, Berkeley study. The wages that African Americans earn in the public sector are higher than those we earn in other industries. Furthermore, there is less wage inequality between African-American workers and nonblack workers in the public sector than in other industries.”
Moreover, as noted in a 2008 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike has been crucial to creating upward mobility among African American families. As for their part in the Civil Rights Movement, unions played a crucial role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, and union leaders were key allies as civil rights activists pushed Congress to adopt civil rights legislation. What’s more, as was noted during the anniversary of his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while organizing sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.
Were there times in the past where unions were racist and discriminatory? Absolutely. But they occurred at points in our history where the entire culture was racist and discriminatory. As blacks organized and attitudes changed, unions were soon on the forefront of the fight for racial justice. Simply put, the right-wing attempt to paint unions as dangerous to African American well-being is ridiculous. If there’s anything blacks should worry about, it’s the ongoing conservative attempt to destroy those unions, and—in the process—keep millions from attaining economic security.