February is Black History Month in the United States, and on that theme, there was some excellent discussion in this month's Labor Notes magazine on where we've come from and how far we still have to go:
Since long before Labor Notes began publishing in 1979, negative trends in labor—from plant closings to lean production to privatization—have hit Black workers particularly hard. As we enter Black History Month, Labor Notes examines some of the historical challenges that African American workers continue to face, and some opportunities for new organizing.
DISPLACEMENT IN MANUFACTURING
Without a doubt, all manufacturing workers have been affected by plant closings and outsourcing. But, as author Clarence Lusane notes in the Harvard Law Journal, black workers in manufacturing have been especially hard hit.
In the 1970s and 80s, cities with some of the highest concentrations of African Americans—such as Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh—lost anywhere from 51 percent (Detroit) to 64 percent (Philadelphia) of their manufacturing jobs.
New labor-saving technologies and lean production techniques—pioneered by employers in the ’70s and ’80s—also contributed to the displacement of Black workers.
As Labor Notes has noted in its “Dispatches from the Shop Floor” series, changes in the workplace not only lead to job loss but also make workplace organizing harder. Lean production and labor/management partnership schemes—which hit the factories in the ’80s—created severe obstacles to building power and solidarity on the shop floor.
As a result of all these developments, by the 1980s much of the momentum Black workers had generated in previous decades, through wildcats and other collective actions, had slowed.
Today, when new plants are opened, they’re often in rural areas or outlying suburbs, inaccessible to the residents of major inner cities, who are disproportionately Black. Lusane cites a study finding that American, Japanese, and German companies all show a “similar preference for plant location in suburban and sunbelt areas where few nonwhites reside.”
NOT JUST BLUE-COLLAR
Black workers in the public sector have also suffered more than their share. From the postal service to clerical work to public transportation, the public sector—with a 37 percent unionization rate—has long been one of the best places for African Americans to find steady, high-paying union jobs.
As the push to downsize government has accelerated, African Americans have been disproportionately affected. Lusane cites a report that found that during federal government cutbacks in the early 1990s, “blacks were fired at more than twice the rate of whites.”
Black workers have thus suffered immensely under government cutbacks and privatization. As government jobs disappear or are contracted out, African Americans are forced to find jobs in the service sector, where there’s ample evidence of racial discrimination in hiring and compensation.
Additionally, a 1994 study by the Government Accountability Office has found that, once unemployed, Black workers have a harder time than whites or Latinos at finding new employment, and also suffer the greatest drop in wages at their new jobs.
BLACK LABOR ACTIVISM
For all that, there are still some positive signs for African American workers. Black workers have a higher unionization rate (16.5 percent) than whites, Asians, or Latinos. A study by labor scholar Kate Bronfenbrenner finds that Black workers are more likely to vote for a union in recognition elections than other racial or ethnic groups.
Looking beyond traditional unions, alternative organizing models have appeared in the largely nonunion South. Non-majority unions and workers centers—such as the workers center Black Workers for Justice and United Electrical Workers Local 150, both based in North Carolina—have demonstrated that it is possible to build solidarity in the workplace using a tool too many unions have abandoned—creative collective action.
Last fall, the Million Worker March drew a sizable contingent of Black workers and activists to Washington, D.C., in a show of political energy and independence. March organizers have planned for follow-up on both the local and national levels.
This month’s issue features Irving Stevens, a longshore worker from South Carolina. Stevens describes the connections he sees between his union activism in the International Longshoreman’s Association and the fight against racism.
Led largely by Black longshore workers, the fight to reform the ILA is particularly important because the docks remain one of the few places where Black workers can find good-paying union work.
We also feature a letter on labor’s revitalization from Detroit-area Black activists General Baker and Charles E. Simmons. Baker is a retired auto worker and veteran labor activist, while Simmons is a professor at Eastern Michigan University and co-chair of the Committee for the Political Resurrection of Detroit. Both were members of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the 1960s.
In months to come, Labor Notes will speak with Black leaders of the non-majority union movement and explore, among other topics, how racism plays out on the shop floor and what unions can do to organize against it.
We will also feature an article by long-time activist Jack O’Dell describing his experiences as an organizer with Operation Dixie, the AFL-CIO’s post-World War II attempt at organizing the South. From his experiences, he draws some lessons for today’s organizers seeking to gain a foothold in that (largely non-union) region.
Black History Month reminds us of how critical African American struggles are to the fights for justice in our workplaces, unions, communities, and society. We look forward to responses and suggestions from our readers.