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Forging a partnership between blacks and unions.

Forging a partnership between blacks and unions

Clearly, the early history of blacks and the labor movement has been one of both conflict and cooperation. In 1842, for example, mobs battled black workers in Philadelphia, and white workers fought black strikebreakers on the New York City docks. But 7 years earlier, white carpenters and ship caulkers joined black caulkers in a strike at the Washington Navy Yard. That same year, blacks supported a citywide general strike in Philadelphia.

Despite employers' shrewd attempts to drive a wedge between black and white workers, black trade union leaders understood early on the need for labor solidarity that crossed the color line. As Issac Myers, the leader of the Colored National Labor Union, said in 1868, "Labor organizations are the safeguard of the colored man, but for real success, separate organization is not the real answer. The white and colored mechanics must come together and work together. The day has passed for the establishment of organizations based upon color.'

Sixty-eight years later, A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, told the American Federation of Labor conventions: "The white and black workers . . . cannot be organized separately as the fingers on my hand. They must be organized altogether, as the fingers on my hand when they are doubled up in the form of a fist . . . If they are organized separately, they will not understand each other. They will fight each other, and if they fight each other, they will hate each other. And the employing class will profit from that condition.'

But it was not until 1964 that the last affiliate of the AFL-CIO removed the "whites only' clause in its constitution and bylaws. Today, black workers tend to be more unionized than the work force as a whole. In 1984, for instance, black workers accounted for 9.6 million wage and salary workers, about 10.5 percent of the work force. About 2.5 million of these workers were unionized, representing about 15 percent of organized labor, while blacks made up roughly 11 percent of the population.

Not only are blacks more unionized in the work force as a whole, but they also represent a large proportion of unionized and total workers in each major section of the U.S. economy. Black workers are 30 percent more heavily unionized in the construction industry, 20 percent more unionized in the manufacturing industry, and 15 percent more unionized in the service sector.

In the public sector, where unions are relatively recent but still reasonably strong, there has been a substantial increase in the number of black members and union leaders. In the service sector, which is largely nonunion and lower paying, only about 10 percent of union workers and 20 percent of all workers are black. In the South, where unions are still weak and where racism continues to be a factor, the future growth and staying power of unions are directly related to black participation and leadership in unions.

Black economic progress

Union membership has clearly paid off for black workers, who earn more than their nonunion counterparts. In 1984, black union members earned an average of $357 per week, or about 50 percent more than the $236 weekly rate for black nonunion workers. In comparison, white union workers' weekly earnings were $409, or 33 percent more than the $307 weekly wages of white nonunion workers.

What about the future? The structural changes in the economy and declining overall union membership, coupled with the proclivity of blacks to join unions, indicate that black membership in unions, as well as black leadership in unions, is likely to increase in the foreseeable future. New organizing inroads are likely to be made in the largely nonunion service sector, which is made up of industries where blacks and other minorities make up a substantial percentage of the work force, particularly in such areas as health care and related fields.

Over the last 4 decades, the labor movement has been an important vehicle for black economic progress, both in the private and public sectors. It has led to the growth of the black middle class, which is composed mostly of blue-collar workers employed in heavy industry and construction. Labor outreach and training programs have helped black and minority youth gain meaningful employment. In the early 1960's, when the A. Philip Randolph Institute first undertook to end the exclusion of blacks in the construction and craft unions, less than 2 percent of Federally registered apprenticeship program trainees were nonwhite. Today, that percentage has jumped to 19.7 percent.

The latest available figures show that, except in the South, the median wage for blacks is 99 percent of the median wage for whites. This rarely acknowledged fact is a consequence of the civil rights legislation of the 1960's as well as of the higher rate of black participation in the labor movement.

Structural economic problems

Despite these gains, recent structural changes in the economy, deindustrialization, and the advent of such technological innovations as robotics, cybernation, and automation-- particularly in the older urban manufacturing centers--have led to increased unemployment for black workers, and thus thwarted social mobility for an increasing number of blacks, leaving them trapped in declining cities and ghettos.

Clearly, blacks have a stake along with organized labor in addressing such developments as the changing organization and character of the work force. Black economic and social progress is intimately linked to the performance of the national economy for all workers. All while racism still persists, the main obstacle to black advancement continues to be the decline in labor intensive industries due to technological changes and unfair trade, as well as sluggish job growth, demographic realities such as the dramatic infusion of women into the labor force, and other economic factors.

Due to unfair foreign competition and two severe recessions in the early 1980's, millions of jobs in such industries as steel, auto, textile, and rubber--industries that have historically provided well-paying, unionized jobs for large numbers of black workers--have been eliminated. The collapse of black family structures, the rise in black poverty, illegitimacy, and the other manifestations of so-called "social pathology' are the result of this economic dislocation.

Moreover, the recent decline in the public sector--long a mainstay of black economic upward mobility, which in recent years employed about 60 percent of the black college graduates--has also limited the avenues of opportunity that led to the expansion of the black middle class in the 1960's.

The shift from heavy industry and manufacturing toward high-tech industries has left many blacks unprepared for jobs in this highly skilled and competitive labor market. The continued growth of the poor black underclass is tied to these developments. Black male joblessness has had a severe impact on family viability, and has led to the dramatic rise in female-headed households, the majority of them living in poverty.

Clearly, black workers have a stake in labor's agenda for social and economic progress, an agenda that must, first and foremost, address the changes in the economy and the work force.
COPYRIGHT 1987 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Hill, Norman
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Aug 1, 1987
Words:1173
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