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Laboring Over Organized Labor
By: Dwight Kirk
Originally posted 3/21/2005


This year is the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters by A. Philip Randolph, the legendary labor leader who launched the first successful black trade union in the United States. To mark the occasion, the powerful AFL-CIO, which is the umbrella organization for 60 affiliated unions, is hosting a photo exhibit of the courageous train porters who waged a fierce twelve-year struggle to win a contract with the Pullman Company.

Hooray. The House of Labor is showcasing the imprint of Black workers on the American union movement. And supreme props to the Black men who endured racism and maintained their dignity while serving mostly White folks on the rails.
So why is the AFL-CIO’s tribute to the Pullman porters being viewed with a jaundiced eye by many Black folk in the labor movement as a gesture of symbolism over reality? Start with the fact that there is a deepening crisis for the 2.1 million Black workers holding union jobs:

* In 2004, total union membership continued its long-term decline, dropping by about 300,000, to 12.5 percent of the American workforce.

* But Black union workers took a walloping hit last year:
55 percent (or 168,000) of the union jobs lost in 2004 were held by Black workers, even though they represented only 13 percent of total union membership. That’s an average of about 3,200 Black workers losing their union jobs every week.

* More stunningly, African-American women accounted for 70 percent of the union jobs lost by women in 2004. Yes, 100,000 Black union women – many the sole or primary breadwinner in their households – lost their paychecks, their job security, medical insurance for their families and their retirement nest eggs in just one year. Gone!

By comparison, the machinists union lost 100,000 members over three years. The drastic downsizing of the American labor movement is destabilizing Black families far more than other working families. And if Black families are being economically destabilized, so too are the communities they live in, the local businesses they patronize, and the churches where they worship.
Compounding the disproportionate loss of union jobs in Black households – especially those headed by women – are the shrinking paychecks of Black union members. In 2004, federal income data ranked African-American union workers last among all the major worker groups in median weekly earnings ($656).

More ominously, Black union wages declined from 2003 to 2004, while the union wages of all other worker groups – Whites, Asians, and Latinos – increased during the same period. Consequently, the racial wage gap between Black and White union members not only persists but also is getting wider. In 2003, Black union workers earned 15 percent less than their White counterparts ($665 vs. $779). By the end of 2004, the gap had grown to 20 percent ($656 vs. $808).

This glaring double disparity of high union job losses and shrinking union paychecks for African-American workers has been ignored in the heated debate over organized labor’s diminished power and its capacity to rebound. Why? Because the debate has been framed in narrow “survivalist” language. Major structural change then becomes a metaphor for dumping diversity, while protecting the power of labor’s elite.

Top union leaders (almost all White men) have been debating the pros and the cons of “merging” unions, “streamlining” the AFL-CIO’s national structure and “eliminating” representatives of women and people of color from the federation’s executive council – all for the cause of “rescuing” organized labor from extinction. In this survivalist vision, casualties of change are inevitable. Get over it. No time for racial etiquette. No time then to address the glaring hemorrhage of Black union jobs right now.

That’s what played out when the AFL-CIO executive council met a few weeks ago in Las Vegas. The federation held its first full debate on the numerous “reforms” offered to make the AFL-CIO more relevant to an increasingly diverse workforce. In fact, nearly 30 percent of the workers in unions today are people of color – African-Americans (13 percent); Latinos (11 percent); and Asian Pacific Islander Americans (3 percent). Women now make up 42 percent of union membership.

Several major unions recommended changes that would, in fact, reverse the progress made by women and people of color in union leadership positions. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters union – both with substantial minority membership – have proposed streamlining the AFL-CIO by eliminating all but 20 of the AFL-CIO’s 60 unions through mergers and by eliminating the constituency group representatives of women, gays and people of color on the AFL-CIO’s executive council.

Of course, stalwart labor organizations like the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) have pounced on this brazen display of arrogance and the stealth retreat from diversity in union leadership positions.

Ten years ago, CBTU and its allies pressured the contenders for the AFL-CIO presidency to commit to increasing the representation of women and people of color in leadership and staff positions at the federation. They succeeded, tripling the number of minorities on the federation’s executive council from four to 13 members.

So it is more than ironic that a decade after Black trade unionists successfully thrust color and gender into labor’s last major leadership “makeover” they and their allies are now on the defensive, fighting to protect past diversity gains from the knives of some new “reformers.” Just as ironic, African-American workers are still more likely to join unions than White, Asian or Latino workers, in spite of labor’s indifference to the precipitous decline in Black union membership. And Black union households are still organized labor’s most consistent political allies, even when that support is not reciprocated.

So here’s the impolite yet unavoidable question: why are millions of Black and brown trade unionists subsidizing their own suppressed status inside the labor movement, through their dues deductions, political contributions and activism, especially when any major setback for them – either external (job loss, income decline or benefit cuts) or internal (changes that would stifle their voice, influence or growth) – will inevitably boomerang on the labor movement as a whole?

Moreover, diversity, in so far as it ever existed beyond the most superficial and conditional levels in the labor movement, has reached an impasse. It has become a casualty of labor survivalists, who would rather rescue the lie of colorblind change than face the complexity of race, gender and nationality in any realistic strategy to overcome unions’ marginal relevance to American workers. Diversity also has become a flabby catch-all term, no longer a form of empowering people who have been disenfranchised in this society.
Now and in the future, it’s about desegregating the real power structures in labor organizations that exclude women and people of color and keep them from having the same meaningful impact on strategies, policies and budget priorities as white men. Desegregating the real power structures in labor organizations is the first step toward gaining genuine and lasting credibility with a workforce that looks less and less like the labor movement of the past fifty years.

Black leaders no longer can simply “show face,” as it’s said, while being marginalized within organized labor’s pale power structure. That would be both wrong and unsustainable. As the heirs to the proud legacy left by Pullman porters whose tenacity and solidarity laid the tracks for millions of black trade unionists to climb into the middle class, Black folks have a whole lot riding on a rejuvenated and more inclusive labor movement.

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