After decades of decline, the labor movement in the U.S. has been gaining some momentum. According to the NLRB, more than 2,000 petitions to form a union were filed in the U.S. last year, the most since 2015. Gallup reports 71% of Americans say they approve of labor unions, the highest number since 1965.
Non-white workers are playing a key role in all this progress, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing 231,000 non-white workers joined union ranks in 2022.
Black workers are more likely than white workers to be part of a union, and currently have the highest unionization rates of any racial and ethnic group at 12.8%. While that’s a far cry from 1983, when 31.7% of Black workers were unionized, Black workers are also highly represented in many of the workforces currently engaged in labor struggle, including health care, transportation, and the service industry.
That means that attacks on unions are also attacks on Black workers. It also means any advancements in labor struggle can help raise living standards for Black workers and reduce racial inequality.
The ongoing battle to organize Amazon warehouses and delivery centers has already seen Black workers taking a lead. A key example of this is the Amazon Labor Union’s (ALU) organizing success in Staten Island, led by Chris Smalls alongside a team of Black and brown worker leaders. This is just the first step in not only organizing Amazon but winning contracts that can inspire other workers to organize a powerful movement of the multiracial working class. Black workers have the potential to play a historic role in helping to shape this next era of labor struggle, using the labor movement as a lever to increase living standards for workers, while also fighting for political and social equality.
Still, the existence of a union in itself is not enough. History is littered with examples of unions that have failed to help Black workers move the needle on racial and economic inequality, either through outright discrimination or strategic missteps. Today, the leaderships of the majority of unions have accepted a failed policy of looking to make gains through conciliation with the bosses, rather than organizing powerful movements of workers to win real gains. One important task for Black workers today is to adopt a fighting approach that builds labor struggle around the socialist principles of mass movements and militant tactics in order to be a more effective vehicle to advance Black freedom.
Unions And The Fight Against Racism
In his final public address, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech in support of striking Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. MLK’s presence in Memphis, along with his nationwide Poor People’s Campaign, indicated how he had begun to publicly connect the fights for economic justice and racial equality.
Importantly, the Memphis strike was about more than better pay – Black sanitation workers also protested the dehumanizing treatment they experienced at the hands of their bosses. As MLK understood, the fights for labor and civil rights are linked.
From Reconstruction to the early 20th century, Black workers were often excluded from participating in trade unions due to entrenched racism. The tide began to shift after the First World War, when hundreds of thousands of Black Americans migrated to the north fleeing Jim Crow and racist violence. They found work in the fast-growing automotive, shipbuilding, steel, and meatpacking industries.
From there, under the leadership of the new labor federation, the CIO, Black workers would participate in some of the most explosive and formative union struggles in American history in the 1930s. This led to dramatic improvements in working conditions and living standards for millions of Americans. Along the way, they also played key roles in pushing their unions to adopt a radical agenda for labor and civil rights.
Take the case of the United Auto Workers union (UAW) in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Black workers in Detroit were initially skeptical of joining the UAW, a new union, due to its affiliation with the notoriously racist American Federation of Labor (AFL). However, they also recognized the key role collective bargaining could play in advancing Black struggle. In deciding to join UAW, Black delegates made specific demands of the union, including allowing Black women to apply for jobs, creating an official grievance process, equal opportunities for promotions and apprenticeships, and representation on key leadership bodies.
Over time, more Black auto workers joined the UAW, although many were slow to fully trust the union. With guidance from an alliance of local and national union organizers, members of the Communist Party, and key Black organizers like Shelton Tappes, Black workers took part in UAW sit-ins, leafleting, walkouts, and picketing. In 1941, the UAW secured a contract with Ford that included an anti-discrimination clause negotiated by Tappes. Radical Black workers played a key role in making this victory possible.
In another example, from the 1950s through the 1970s, Local 1199 of the Drug and Hospital Union became renowned for its uncompromising militant organizing on behalf of Black workers. Formed initially to represent drugstore clerks in Harlem, the union would eventually represent as many as 36,500 hospital workers and 5,000 pharmacy workers by 1970. It earned the admiration of figures like Malcolm X and MLK (who called it his “favorite” union), not only by explicitly linking labor organizing to the fight against racism and oppression but also by adopting fighting tactics in struggles like the two-month-long Charleston hospital strike of 1969.
Local 1199 threw the might of its organizing power behind public housing and community programs in East Harlem, advocated for community control of education, broke with moderate unions to support progressive electoral candidates, and helped develop a layer of young Black organizers into union leadership roles.
What Makes Labor Struggle Successful?
Bringing some of these lessons forward, a militant labor movement can be a vehicle for Black and white workers to organize together in common struggle, including against racism. Unionized workers can push for strong politicized demands that provide more substance to unions’ general anti-racist slogans, which can often be easily co-opted or distorted by the bosses. For example, to co-opt the “Black Lives Matter at work” slogan adopted by union organizers in Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon introduced a Black Employee Network (BEN) as a way to cynically win the support of a small minority of Black workers to oppose the union.
Unionized workers pushing for an anti-racist agenda can demand explicit language in contracts, demanding transparency in wage scales, promotions, and benefits. But racism can’t be eradicated through a union contract alone, which is why it will be important for unions to connect shop floor organizing to wider movements. Socialists have played a key role in bringing this wider perspective to unions, demonstrating in action what solidarity looks like. For example, during the 2020 George Floyd protests, bus drivers with Minneapolis’ Local 1005 union refused to transport protesters to jail in opposition to police repression.
The bosses have used racism as a key tool to divide workers against one another. Using the labor movement as a battering ram against racist division is an essential way to demonstrate that our interests as workers are linked. This is the meaning of solidarity. Rebuilding the labor movement is an essential task in the fight for Black freedom.