Black Workers in White Unions: Job Discrimination in the United States

By William B. Gould | Go to book overview

Introduction

"Who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed, and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?"1 So spoke President John F. Kennedy thirteen years ago, goaded at that time into a search for legal remedies by the dangerous collision course created by civil rights demonstrations, hoses, police dogs, and "Bull" Connor's insistence that the South truly meant it when it said "Never" to integration of the races. Unkept promises and rising expectations produced not simply impatience but a wide spectrum of demands for equality in civil rights. But the form of protest shifted dramatically and abruptly in a short span of time. From the peaceful picket lines and marches of the early sixties, it changed to the riots in Watts in 1965, to more prolonged bouts of violence and arson in Detroit and Newark in 1967 and later to a large number of other urban centers, mostly in the northern part of the country. Despite the new era of "benign neglect" ushered in by the Nixon administration in January 1969, the fires that began to burn brightly more than a decade ago are not yet out; indeed they give every promise of breaking forth anew. Among the many challenges of the late seventies and the eighties is the resolution of racial problems in the courts and other forums which adjudicate disputes peaceably and rationally -- and not in the streets.

The labor movement's response is ambivalent. While the unions purport to adopt a moral stance which is a notch above the country's, they have struggled against adhering to the requirements of new civil rights legislation. More than any other institutions, trade unions are the focal point of racial discord in our society. For the unions represent both the new immigrants and older groups who are pulling themselves up the ladder and who perceive their competitive status to be unstable and threatened. Paradoxically, the unions represent some of the most reactionary and insecure elements in American society as well as the "underclass," which is disproportionately black as well as Chicano and Puerto Rican. A principal obstacle to a more progressive labor movement in the United States is its unwarranted self-satisfaction and smugness about organizing new categories of workers. The effect is to disregard the interests of those who need protection most -- the significant number of the poor who are members of racial minorities.

Thus, unions often constitute roadblocks to the achievement of nondiscriminatory employment practices. The urban migration has brought blacks face to face

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