"The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that in 1965, and African Americans still hear his quote ring.
A new report, Blacks in Unions: 2012 , by the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Labor Research and Education , finds that black workers are 19% more likely to be in unions than non-black workers. In the nation’s 10 largest metropolitan areas, African Americans are 42% more likely than non-blacks to be in unions.
There’s a pretty good reason for this. Unions make a difference in the lives of black workers—in cold, hard cash terms, it amounts to $185 a week in median weekly earnings, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overall, union members also are more likely than nonunion workers to have health care coverage from their employers and good pensions.
But I believe Dr. King spoke of more than dollars and cents. I think that as he said those words to the Illinois AFL-CIO 48 years ago, he referred to the doors unions opened to the middle class for generations of African Americans and other workers otherwise shut out. I think he had in mind the dignity that comes with having a voice on the job—a say in how to make a job and a life better. And he also honored the union movement’s long advocacy for civil and human rights and economic and social justice.
Davon Lomax, 25, a member of Painters and Allied Trades ( IUPAT ) District Council 9 in Queens, N.Y., tells it this way:
Everyone knows the benefits of being in a union, no matter which one it is. I think blacks are more likely to join a union because they see the direct correlation with a decent living and a path where their kids can do better than them. Given the fact that blacks historically have had hard times locking down decent and fair paying jobs, joining a union is putting yourself in a fair playing field. A place where you won’t have to worry if someone is getting paid more, or getting better benefits, everyone is one and everyone is family.
There is no discrimination, and it is also a place where if you work hard, you can look yourself in the mirror and be proud of yourself and your union.
Dr. Steven Pitts, researcher and writer of the report and labor policy specialist at the UC Berkeley Labor Center, says the unemployment crisis facing the black community is regularly discussed; however, less talked about is the crisis of low-wage work, and the center wanted to use this research to highlight a solution to this issue: unions.
“[The black jobs crisis] is not just an individual problem, it’s a structural problem that can be solved by organizing,” says Pitts. “Unionization is a strategy to address the jobs crisis.”
As the AFL-CIO looks for new ways to tackle the future of the labor movement, Pitts says black unionists are an underutilized resource given the high rates of union density for African Americans. Pitts points to the lessons from the Chicago Teachers Union strike. Because the teachers had good relationships with the black community and parents, they “staved off divisions between unions and members of the community to improve the quality of life.”
If we’re trying to look for new pathways forward, black unionists are key.