Unions Empower Black Workers

As capitalism formed America's economy, it also shaped our culture to the advantage of the dominant classes. White workers in the South, already mostly excluded from agriculture, were replaced in other trades on plantations as the owners trained their slaves in the skilled trades. Hiring skilled slaves out to other businesses became a common practice that set blacks in direct competition with white workers beyond the plantations.Pernicious stereotypes about blacks promulgated by the slave masters justified their greedy practices. Lower-class whites used these prejudices to bolster their self-esteem as well as to argue against employing slaves outside of plantations. Meanwhile, industrialization set native-born white workers against blacks in the North. Craftsmen and artisans resented being replaced with unskilled factory "wage slaves."Northern workers formed unions to fight industrial capitalism. The bosses often used blacks as "scabs," thereby fanning the flames of bigotry that embroil us today. Northern workers were ambivalent about slavery, wanting to keep it out of new states and territories while fearing competition from a flood of freed slaves ascending on the North. Southern whites not only saw freed blacks as rivals for jobs, they also dreaded losing their social status above slaves in the Southern caste system.The idealistic leaders of the first great labor confederation, the National Labor Union (NLU) founded in 1866, endeavored to integrate the labor movement, although some national unions and many locals banned blacks. Jim Crow laws further crippled Southern unions' desegregation by outlawing mixed organizations and public meetings.Though suffering discrimination in many unions, black workers saw advantages in unionization. White workers, even racist ones, knew that unorganized black workers could undermine their unions. Over the years, accomodations were made in the South that partially satisfied both races while sidestepping racist traditions and Jim Crow laws. Blacks organized their own unions in workplaces that lacked whites as white unions set up separate locals for blacks in mixed industries and job sites. These practices were not confined to the South. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters is an example of a black union that reached across the country.Other conflicts exacerbated tensions between white and black unionists. Members of the skilled trades opposed organizing unskilled workers and many unionists preferred focusing on improving working conditions to political activism that addressed larger issues. Discord arose between those workers and black labor leaders concerned with gaining political rights and social equality for their people along with unionizing their largely unskilled brethren. This pattern of resistance to integration and political activism by many unionists continued with the NLU's descendants -- the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and the AFL-CIO.The 20th Century furthered blacks' acceptance in unions. The Congress of Industrial Organizing (CIO), founded in 1934, organized unskilled workers the AFL usually ignored. By 1940 there were 210,000 blacks in CIO unions, while 390,000 blacks belonged to AFL unions and independent labor organizations. President Roosevelt banned discrimination in the defense industry, bringing black membership in the AFL to over 600,000 at the end of World War II. While the AFL-CIO and most of its affiliated unions officially supported the post-war Civil Rights Movement, racism in Southern locals hampered labor's efforts in the battle for desegregation. Southern union members and their locals threatened to leave the labor movement when pushed to support desegregation.Labor leaders also feared that civil rights activism could distract unions from their collective bargaining efforts. They were concerned, too, that civil rights groups pushed too hard for change, using tactics detrimental to labor's quest for respectability. Furthermore, black unionists generally worked for liberation through black activist groups instead of their unions. Nonetheless, unions were far ahead of business and government in promoting full citizenship for blacks.Union membership rates reflect the affinity that black workers have for unions compared to whites. Last year 19 percent of black workers were union members, while only 14 percent of white employees belonged to unions. The 2,441,000 black union members in America have good reason to appreciate unions, since their median weekly wage of $507 far outstrips the $356 a week earned by non-union black employees.The American labor movement has a checkered past when it comes to blacks. While unions helped blacks more than most institutions, they were guilty of reflecting our society's racist attitudes. But while companies like Texaco still exhibit bigoted behavior, institutional racism has been eradicated in unions. Moreover, unions have empowered their black members in the workplace while helping create the black middle class.

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