Unions, Organizing Cities, and a 21st-Century Labor Movement: Implications for African Americans

Article excerpt

There are two noteworthy facts regarding the state of labor unions today that, at first glance, may seem unrelated. First, since the mid-20th century the percentage of workers represented by labor unions has dropped significantly, from slightly above 35 percent in 1955 to approximately 12 percent in 2008 (BLS 2008). The causes of this relative decline range from the growth of the workforce itself to the inability (and often unwillingness) of organized labor to keep pace with--and concretely address--changes in the workforce and the changes in capitalism. Second, African Americans workers are, as a percentage of the African American population, more unionized than anyone else--approximately 15 percent of African Americans are unionized (Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 2006)--and tend to be more pro-union than other sectors of the population. The relationship between these two facts will be a theme running throughout this article, and the strategic implications for both organized labor and Black America will be explored.


The crisis facing organized labor is one that goes well beyond the actual numbers. In the late 1940s the leaders of organized labor, in response to the Cold War "imperative" to purge the Left, ousted more than one million members from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (Foner 1974). This great purge eliminated the "soul" from the ranks of organized labor. The unions (and unionists) that tended to be the most aggressive and those that tended to take stronger stands against racism were eliminated as a result of their refusal to bow to the Taft-Hartley Amendments to the National Labor Relations Act, which restricted Communists from holding union office.

Also, during the late 1940s, organized labor turned away from a program of expanding President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, particularly with regard to national health care. A systematic caving in took place whereby unions focused on negotiating bilateral benefits agreements with employers rather than building the sort of national coalition needed to bring about the expansion of what has come to be known as the "social wage." The negative implications of this choice would become very evident in the 1980s and 1990s, but at a point when unions represented more than one-third of the workforce and when larger nonunion employers were often offering semicomparable benefits to workers as a way of staving off unions, they were not yet apparent.

The leadership of organized labor, particularly with the founding of the AFL-CIO, believed that they had established a permanent place at the table of national decision making. Despite the decreasing percentage of workers represented by unions, this shrinkage was only marginally evident until the late 1970s. For many union leaders, the situation appeared to be a blip on the screen rather than indicative of a deeper problem.

The combination of the purge of the Left, along with the related self-delusion that organized labor had a permanent seat at the table, caused a turn away from what is often referred to as movement building, i.e., the efforts to build a transformative social movement(s) to alter the political power balance in the United States. The extent to which leaders of organized labor, such as the AFL-CIO's first president, George Meany, thought of movement building or social transformation was more in the context of lobbying the political party establishment rather than changing the balance of power. An implication of this was that organized labor, rather than being or becoming a hub for social movement activity, became an institution preoccupied with fighting for both respectability and stability. At a point when the Black freedom struggle was gaining steam--in the form of the civil rights movement (1950s-1960s)--organized labor's ossification and inability to look beyond its own institutional boundaries imperiled its own future. …