Unions have long been a bastion of the middle-class and are a vital part of American labor. They help raise wages, improve working conditions, and provide much-needed stability for workers in various fields. At a time of increasing worker precarity, unions are engaging in innovative work to address the issues that the most marginalized workers face.
However, unions have traditionally embraced a “colorblind” approach, which means that they primarily addressed issues of class, while ignoring that class is also a racially coded system. In fact, unions have perpetuated injustice and inequity in the past. As we heard from Richard Rothstein, unions often exacerbated segregation and the racial wealth gap for much of the 20th century. Some unions discriminated against African-Americans outright until the 1970s.
Tamara Lee, our latest guest, argues we must make organized labor work for everyone in 2021. She believes that unions must stand up and fight for issues outside the purview of labor, such as race, economics, and politics.
“If unions are not working to mitigate or drive policy decisions that attack structural inequality in all of our systems, and by that I mean education system, health care, access to voting, all of those things that we are impacted in as members of a society, … they are going to play out in the workplace,” she told Mila.
It makes sense. If a worker can’t come to work because they’re chronically ill because poor access to quality healthcare, this negatively impacts the workplace. If a police officer wrongfully shoots a black employee on their way to work, it’s now a labor problem. If women must quit because they can’t get childcare, it will hurt the labor market.
The good news is that the idea that unions need to look past labor and class issues to mitigate the problems workers face in other areas of life is called “whole-worker organizing,” is gaining traction.
Listen to Lee explain why only focusing on class issues exacerbates inequality. EMBED TRAILER
In a country where economic and racial injustice go hand in hand, creating an organization that combats both will be more effective than one with a singular focus. The key to making unions work for workers starts at the top, according to Lee.
“You have to have diversity and inclusion in your union leadership to be able to identify those things,” she explained, “so that we make sure that we are bargaining contracts that allow for black people to have all of their needs met in order to be equal with our white counterparts.”
When union leadership looks and acts like its members, it can use those perspectives of real lived experience in collective bargaining and labor policy recommendations to start to unravel the tapestry of racial and economic inequality.
“What are all the issues facing a worker from that demographic? Is it that there are concerns about immigration? Is it that there are concerns about, you know, institutional safety?” Lee explained. “Then try to engage in the type of bargaining for the common good–which is to look at and engage with members of the community and sort of bringing the community into the bargaining table.”
Organized labor in America can and must be more inclusive. Leveling the economic playing field between Blacks and whites is central to ending racial inequity. Exciting innovations like whole-worker organizing are a promising step in the right direction.
“’Economic Justice Is Inextricably Linked to Racial Justice’: How to Make Black History Month a Lifelong Effort to Learn and Evolve.” MSN, MSN, www.msn.com/en-us/news/other/e2-80-98economic-justice-is-inextricably-linked-to-racial-justice-e2-80-99-how-to-make-black-history-month-a-lifelong-effort-to-learn-and-evolve/ar-BB1dx5A0.
Gindin, Sam, et al. “The Power of Deep Organizing.” Jacobin, 12 Aug. 2016, www.jacobinmag.com/2016/12/jane-mcalevey-unions-organizing-workers-socialism.
Hill, Herbert, et al. “Labor Unions and the Negro:The Record of Discrimination.” Commentary Magazine, 3 Nov. 2015, www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/herbert-hill/labor-unions-and-the-negrothe-record-of-discrimination/.
Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: a Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Liveright Publishing Corporation, a Division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.
“State-Sponsored Segregation: Richard Rothstein.” Future Hindsight, www.futurehindsight.com/episode/state-sponsored-segregation-richard-rothstein/.