President Biden has taken a strong stand in favor of strengthening worker organizations so far. The success of Amazon’s anti-union efforts this week in Alabama remind us of how necessary reforms, currently in the form of the PRO Act in Congress, are. But this is not just important for restoring the broken link between American work and living standards. It is necessary to address the country’s stark racial disparities. As Biden himself said in February, “unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, and especially Black and brown workers.”
He has reason to be optimistic about the impact of worker power on wages, terms and conditions. But, with the gallons of newspaper ink spilled on the role of white trade unionists in the rise of Republican populism, can we be so sure that reforms will deliver cross-race solidarity? America’s own history in union organizing provides promising evidence that it will.
Progressive fears about unions reinforcing racial hierarchies has a long pedigree. In 1894, the American Railway Union launched one of the largest strikes in US history. The radicalism of the strike united management and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in opposition. That radicalism didn’t stop the union from voting down a motion by president Eugene V. Debs to include Black workers in the movement. The rank-and-file went further, touting the maintenance of the color line as “confirm[ation of]…their organization’s commitment to internal democratic procedure.”
We should not be surprised by this. Trade unions reflected the prejudices of their members: the AFL’s decision to focus on craft rather than industrial workers from 1900 was a deliberate attempt to exclude Southern and Eastern European unskilled migrants as well as African Americans, Chinese and Japanese workers.
On the eve of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), just 12 percent of the U.S. labor force was unionized. And just 1 percent of union members were African American. By creating a legal framework for unionization that favored unions; prohibiting union busting tactics by bosses; and removing legal liabilities for the consequences of strike action, the Act put workers in the driving seat. Unlike Social Security and other acts that reinforced existing dynamics between the state and the citizen, the NLRA empowered social forces beyond the control of lawmakers. This led to a rise in militancy as workers looked beyond their workplace to their industry, sector, or their place in the economy as a whole. Calls for wider social equity followed, coupled with the rising financial might of unions able to go toe-to-toe with major employers when buying off politicians. This was augmented by the explosive growth of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) due to the manifest failure of the AFL to represent industrial workers in the Depression. Unionization rates soared from 12 percent in 1935 to 29 percent in 1939, putting the United States on par with Western Europe as communities across the nation used these freedoms to organize.
As Ira Katznelson documents in Fear Itself, this new momentum was coupled with ‘pioneer[ing] racial integration in American life’, supported by the rapid transfer of Black workers into industry in both the North and South to support the war economy, and into progressive CIO unions – some of whom went so far as to fine members for racial discrimination.
This was not lost on segregationists, especially following labor’s foray into racial politics with unionist A. Philip Randolph in 1941. Labor had shown it could not be assimilated into Jim Crow as easily as the rest of the welfare state. Efforts to dilute, unpick and dismantle the NLRA came quickly. North Carolina Congressman Graham Arthur Barden expressed an opposing viewpoint typical at the time, describing the NLRA as a threat to “our American way of life”, racially as well as economically. What emerged – the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 – repealed restrictions on anti-union activity by employers; empowered states to pass anti-union “right to work” laws; and banned political and solidarity strikes by unions. This is still the regime the United States operates under today.
These changes weakened the genie but did not put it back in its bottle: trade unionism, and the disproportionate share of Black Americans in trade unions, continued to rise until the 1970s. Rosenfeld and Kleykamp (2012) explain why: trade unions provide African Americans with a powerful ally against workplace and community discrimination. They estimate that, had unionization rates not fallen in comparable industries since the 1970s, a third of the wage gap between Black and white workers would be eliminated – and that this effect would be stronger for women than men.
But unionization rates did fall. President Reagan, reframing labor rights as a sectoral issue, set the tone by making an exemplar of air traffic coordinators (a predominantly white group that had backed him in 1980). This was the first assertive use at a Federal level of Taft-Hartley “right to work” clauses – prohibiting contractual clauses that prevent non-union members free-riding on the public goods, especially wages and conditions, provided by unions – replicated by Republican governors in the 27 states with right-to-work laws on the books since.
This was political too: Alex Hertel-Fernandez has shown how anti-union efforts reduce political participation of former (disproportionately Democratic) members; Frymer and Grumbach have demonstrated that recent unionization successes also reduce racial prejudices among new recruits – and fast. The run-away success of Heather McGhee’s new book The Sum of Us repeatedly tells the same story: of white workers, mobilized by campaigns like the Fight for 15, realizing for the first time that they do have power to take on the bosses; and that their colleagues of color are allies facing the same issues (and more), rather than rivals to be feared.
White supremacy can seem like an insurmountable problem, with no silver bullet. The evidence that union membership today helps build those organic links across communities, and wins for all based on that solidarity, are heartening – but relying on ad hoc conversations and episodic campaigns for unions is not enough. The odds are stacked so strongly against unions that they cannot counter the decades and centuries of anti-worker, pro-White Supremacy power and ideology present in the US.
But the experience of the 1930s and ‘40s shows us that there is one step we could take now to give solidarity building a shot in the arm: to ameliorate poverty today; amplify the agency of Black communities for social change; and rebuild a key site for cross-race coalition building. The United States must repeal Taft-Hartley, and bring the weight of a revitalized economic struggle to the campaign for racial justice.