Black Americans and Organized Labor: A New History

By Bernstein, David E. | Independent Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Black Americans and Organized Labor: A New History


Bernstein, David E., Independent Review


Black Americans and Organized Labor: A New History By Paul Moreno Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006. Pp. 334. $49.95 cloth.

The intellectual and ideological follies of contemporary historical scholarship are especially prevalent in the field of labor history. Absurd Marxist paradigms flourish there. The vast majority of labor historians are completely innocent of any knowledge of modern economics, including labor economics, despite its obvious relevance to a coherent understanding of labor-management relations. Reading a typical labor history book requires the reader to ignore or "translate" a great deal of ideological claptrap, incoherent analysis, and tendentious interpretation to absorb whatever useful information the author has uncovered. Given the state of the field, Paul Moreno's excellent Black Americans and Organized Labor: A New History comes as an especially welcome breath of fresh air.

Moreno tackles a very important and also very "hot" topic in U.S labor historythe often tumultuous relationship between African Americans and labor unions. Black Americans and Organized Labor is by far the most comprehensive, most coherent, and best-documented work on the subject. Moreno's command of the relevant literature is outstanding, and his detective work in locating many obscure but important sources is impressive.

Even better, Moreno approaches the subject without the leftist ideological baggage that burdens most other writers in the field and with a good grasp of relevant economic concepts. In particular, he understands that contrary to illusory notions of innate worker solidarity, individual workers and groups of workers have widely varying economic interests. He holds no romantic or ideological illusions about labor unions; he understands that their basic economic goal is to create a labor cartel for their members' benefit.

Another impressive feature of this book is that Moreno, unlike many historians, does not treat black workers and the black people more generally as passive bit players in a larger class conflict between "capital" and "labor." Nor, unlike many historians, does he pay disproportionate attention to the relatively few examples of racially egalitarian unions in the pre-New Deal period, which some historians use as purported exemplars of the true spirit of labor solidarity. Rather, he properly treats African Americans as striving as best they can to promote their individual and collective well-being in a hostile economic and social environment.

As would be expected, black Americans disagreed among themselves regarding the best strategy to employ in their own self-interest, but a coherent historical narrative emerges from Moreno's work. In the post-Reconstruction, pre-New Deal era, blacks, faced with harsh union discrimination and an indifferent (at best) government, typically sided with employers in the era's great labor-management disputes. Most black intellectuals favored a competitive labor market in which black workers could compete without fear of being shut out by cartels formed by white workers. Black leaders, for example, consistently opposed laws that would prohibit courts from enjoining strikes. Blacks, however, were not always hostile to organized labor. On the rare occasions when unions treated blacks fairly, blacks joined in impressive numbers. Left-leaning black leaders, such as W. E. B. DuBois, consistently tried to find common ground with unions.

In the New Deal and immediate post-New Deal eras, the strategic calculus for black workers changed. The emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) created hope for a racially egalitarian labor movement, and the dominant statism of New Deal labor and economic policy made prior appeals to individualism politically and ideologically anachronistic. The black elite and, to a lesser extent, black workers embraced labor unionism, in part because they were swept up in the ideological currents of the times and in part because the emerging coalition between government and labor unions seemed too strong to resist.

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