Black workers, history, and building union membership

Amanda Ulloa photo

There’s been a growing worker union movement in 2022. Workers are turning to labor unions at traditionally non-union companies like Trader Joe’s, Amazon, REI, Target, Chipotle, Starbucks, Apple, and more.

“Seventy-one percent of Americans now approve of labor unions,” Gallup announced in reference to its annual Work and Education survey, conducted between Aug. 1-23. “Although statistically similar to last year’s 68%, [labor union approval] is up from 64% before the pandemic and is the highest Gallup has recorded on this measure since 1965.

“Such support comes despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans aren’t in a labor union themselves.”

The current unionization wave is a response to the strains many workers have dealt with during the three years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Having to struggle to pay for goods and services

due to rising costs and stagnant wages while reflecting on ongoing conversations about the need for everyone to have a better work-life balance, has pushed workers to strike out for the positive features—i.e., better wages, health, and work-rule benefits—that being part of a union can bring.

“Among major race and ethnicity groups,” the Bureau of Labor Statistics said when it released its annual report on unionization this past January, “Black workers continued to have a higher union membership rate in 2021 (11.5%) than white workers (10.3%), Asian workers (7.7%), and Hispanic workers (9.0%).”

Generally, the Black community’s allegiance to unions comes as an inheritance from the Civil Rights Movement. Initially, when trade union organizations were created in the 1860s, white members voted to exclude Black workers. So, Blacks created their own labor organizations.

Black women were the first to establish a union less than a year after the official end of African enslavement. On June 20, 1866, the Washerwomen of Jackson, Mississippi sent a letter to the city’s mayor, making it known that they would be establishing a set price for their laundry work. There’s little information on how their statement was received in Jackson, but other unions of now free Black laborers were also quickly established. Two of the most famous were the “Colored” National Labor Union (CNLU) where Frederick Douglass was elected president in 1872, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), the first all-Black labor union in the U.S., established in 1925 by A. Philip Randolph.

Randolph organized the men hired to work as sleeping car porters with the Pullman Palace Car Company because he knew they had been specifically hired to cater to the wishes of white railroad car travelers. “[George] Pullman was open about his reasons for hiring Black porters;” Jennifer Hasso writes in an article for Ferris State University’s online “Jim Crow Museum.” “[H]e reasoned that formerly enslaved people would best anticipate and cater to his customers’ needs and would work long hours for cheap wages. By the 1920s, 20,224 African Americans were working as Pullman porters and train personnel. This was the largest category of Black labor in the United States and Canada at the time.”

Under Randolph, members of the BSCP were considered some of the best-paid Black workers in the country. BSCP was later chartered by the American Federation of Labor (AFL)—and the organization’s strength and ability to promote and formulate agendas (Randolph’s threat of a march on Washington, D.C. in 1941 pushed then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, which banned racial discrimination by federal agencies and all unions working with the defense industry), made it vital in working with Civil Rights Movement activists. Alongside the BSCP, Randolph established the Negro American Labor Council (NALC) in 1960. The NALC was never as powerful as the BSCP, but it is recognized for having initiated the call for 1963’s famous “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

But aligning itself with the African American Civil Rights Movement was what doomed U.S. labor unions. In her book, “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” Heather McGhee points to a conservative talking point that tied unions to support for Black rights. “[P]riming white voters with racist dog whistles was the means; the end was an economic agenda that was harmful to working- and middle-class voters of all races, including white people. In railing against welfare and the war on poverty, conservatives like President Reagan told white voters that government was the enemy, because it favored Black and brown people over them—but their real agenda was to blunt government’s ability to challenge concentrated wealth and corporate power.”

This past Labor Day, Andre Powell, an AFSCME leader and long-time Baltimore, Maryland community activist, spoke at a Starbucks Workers United panel about the importance of understanding the role race and racism have played in trade union organizing in the United States: “Labor unions are…doing workshops around race. … More and more in the past two decades, the number of workers of color and women is growing,” Powell said as part of the  “Same Struggle, Same Fight: The Importance of Intersectionality Within the Labor Movement,” panel.

“So, it’s good to see them doing the workshops, but we need to just keep in mind that this country, here we are 160 years after the end of the Civil War and during Reconstruction, it was a little easier for Black people in the South. But then one of the presidents—I’m thinking Andrew Johnson or Andrew Jackson––withdrew federal troops from the South and that allowed these little renegade bands of racists to come back and take control and harass and terrorize Black people. But they didn’t do it wearing regular clothes, they put on these white sheets with these hoods.

“That legacy of racism has continued in this country: there were movements to beat it back in the 1960s and 1970s and we certainly pushed it back. But then again looking at the latest guy that used to be president, Trump, now the racists have come forward again and are emboldened to come out.

“Labor unions continue to stand against racism because we’ve got to remember the history, we must begin to teach the legacy of racism that started in this country. …We’ve got to link all of these, the intersections that we’ve got…and keep it solid, we’ve got to stay together and stay unified against racism, against sexism, against homophobia, and LGBTQ2-spirit oppression. This country was developed on a racist basis: the killing of Native Americans and stealing their land. And that legacy, some of it is trying to come back today. It’s going to take a strong united movement from the labor force and the non-labor force together to fight back.”

Source: Amsterdam News

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