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Unionization and Black Workers

The American Prospect

Trade unions are still a key path to higher-quality jobs and greater dignity at the workplace.

In much of the media coverage of the presidential campaign, unions and the black community are portrayed as separate groups without common members or common interests. In fact, black workers are disproportionately union members. In 2007, 12.1 percent of all workers (16 years or older) held union cards, while 14.3 percent of black workers were union members.

Beyond these numbers, the black struggle for freedom and equality has always seen unions as a fundamental instrument for achieving its goals, even though at times some unions discriminated against blacks. In the aftermath of a police attack on striking Memphis sanitation workers on February 23, 1968 — the strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis — black marchers began holding signs proclaiming, “I am a Man.” That simple slogan carried the profound sentiment that central to the civil-rights movement was the assertion of a basic humanity that had been denied blacks in this country since the writing of the U.S. Constitution. The sanitation strike affirmed that in the context of the workplace, unionization was a central strategy for achieving dignity.

Despite the myriad of changes that have taken place over the past 40 years, blacks still face tremendous challenges in the workplace. The black community faces a two-pronged job crisis: the crisis of unemployment and the crisis of low-wage jobs.

In 2006, the black employment-population ratio was 58.4 percent — meaning that almost four out of 10 blacks over age 16 were jobless. During the same year, 31.5 percent of blacks who worked full-time for at least 50 weeks earned less than $25,000 — which was only 50 percent more than the federal poverty level for a family of one adult and two children. Today — as in 1968 — unionization is a fundamental strategy for overcoming these challenges.

New technologies have transformed the global economy in ways that were unimaginable in 1968. Often, the discussion of these global economic realities focuses on the hyper mobility of financial capital around the world, the movement of jobs away from the United States, and the increased migration of people from the global South to the United States. While these features are present, it is important to also focus on the new global division of work: Some old jobs are leaving the United States; some old jobs in the United States are expanding; some jobs that are new to the United States are growing.

This new global division of work means that there are large numbers of jobs, mainly in the service sector, that will necessarily be located in the United States for the foreseeable future. These jobs are in industries such as logistics and transportation, hospitality (hotels, resorts, and restaurants), retail, construction and building services, and the care industries (health care, home care, child care). Today, many of these jobs are poorly paid, don’t provide substantive retirement and health-care benefits, and offer few connections to better-paying jobs. In these industries, the market power of firms relative to the power of their employees creates situations where basic working conditions are eroding.

The health-care, leisure-and-hospitality, and retail-trade industries have three key things in common. They are less susceptible to offshoring due to the need for close proximity to customers; they employ large numbers of black workers; and they are possible to unionize. In 2005, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that these three industries would account for 43.8 percent of the net job growth in the United States among non-agricultural wage and salary workers between 2006 and 2016. In 2000, black employment in these industries made up 32 percent of all black employment, and the vast majority of these workers received low wages (health care: 61.7 percent; leisure and hospitality: 80.3 percent; retail trade: 73.3 percent).

Given these projections of large job growth in industries with significant black employment at low wages, strategies that focus on education and training of individual workers are insufficient. It is vital to find ways to improve the job quality for workers who hold (or will hold) these jobs. There are two basic strategies for accomplishing this job transformation and raising industry labor standards for workers: unionization and public-policy intervention.

The importance of these key strategies for black workers cannot be overstated. The traditional approach to the job crisis in the black community has focused on the unemployment dimension. For decades, advocates have fought for better access to industries such as construction, where black workers are underrepresented, as one key solution to the problem of unemployment. There should surely be better access to construction jobs for black workers, and policy advocates should be unrelenting in this arena. However, what is not stated (or is forgotten) is that the blue-collar pathway into a middle-class lifestyle via construction jobs (or jobs in the manufacturing sector such as the auto, steel, aircraft, and oil-tool industries) was paved by workers who fought to form unions and who thus gained the power to demand better working conditions from their employers. There is nothing inherent in a construction job that results in good pay, and pay eroded whenever construction work was turned back into casual labor. The spread of the nonunion construction firms has eroded the wages and benefits for all construction workers.

This lesson — that unionization is central to turning manufacturing and construction jobs into good-paying jobs — needs to be remembered and applied as many advocates push green-collar jobs as a solution to a myriad of problems facing the black community. Green-collar jobs are not inherently good jobs. As in the old “smokestack” industries, unionization in the new green economy will be an indispensable strategy to ensure that these jobs are good jobs. Without this, many green-economy employers will follow the path of low-wage manufacturers and service-sector employers.


In the famous question of Harvard economists Richard Freeman and James Medoff, what do unions do? The benefit of unions for black workers (and all workers) can be seen in at least two areas:

The union-wage differential.
The Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) released a report in May 2008 that found that between 2003 and 2007, the presence of unions raised wages for workers in the lowest pay brackets more than it did for higher-wage workers. Unionized low-wage workers (those in the lowest-10th percentile) received a 20.6 percent higher wage compared to nonunion workers in the same wage bracket. This union premium was 13.7 percent for workers in the 50th percentile and 6.1 percent for workers in the 90th percentile.

The reduction in the risk shift.
Workers face increased insecurity as they are exposed to potential catastrophe in the form of a health emergency or insufficient retirement income. Conservative policy consciously shifts these exposures from employers and the government to individual families. Unions increase the likelihood of working families having health insurance and a retirement plan. In a second report released in August 2007, CEPR calculated that between 2004 and 2006, 77.7 percent of union workers had health insurance compared to 52.3 percent of nonunion workers. In the area of retirement plans, 76.5 percent of union workers had a pension compared to 44.7 percent of nonunion workers. This union advantage was more striking for low-wage workers. In 15 low-wage occupations, 63.3 percent of union workers had health insurance compared to 27.6 percent of nonunion workers. In the area of retirement plans, the figures were 59.8 percent and 21.2 percent respectively.

One reason why black workers are disproportionately union members is their concentration in heavily unionized sectors, notably transportation and the public sector. While black workers were 11.1 percent of the total work force in 2007, they made up 17.3 percent of transportation-industry workers and 15.8 percent of public employees. In the same year, 22.1 percent of the transportation industry and 35.9 percent of the public sector was unionized. An additional explanation of the greater tendency for blacks to join unions is their stronger desire to do so. In their book, What Workers Want, Richard Freeman and Joel Rogers report that in 1994, 59 percent of blacks responded to a questionnaire indicating that they would vote to join a union (if given a chance). This compared to 28 percent of non-blacks. According to my own calculations, union workers generally receive 30.1 percent higher wages than nonunion workers; for black workers, this union premium is 37.3 percent.

Since its peak in the mid-1950s, the percentage of workers who are in unions has steadily declined. This fall in union representation — the result of vicious union-busting, often with government complicity — not only impacts union workers. It also affects most workers, as the decline in unionization erodes social norms for blue-collar employment that were based on the practices established in unionized firms. Wages fail to keep pace with inflation; health-care costs are shifted to workers; retirement plans no longer provide a guaranteed benefit; and career ladders internal to firms are broken.

Since black workers are not immune to the negative effects of declining union strength, efforts to improve the quality of life in the black community must also embrace steps to strengthen unions. In the policy arena, the Employee Free Choice Act would correct the inability of current labor laws to protect workers’ right under the 1935 Wagner Act to form a union without employer influence. In addition, it is important to support local attempts to establish basic labor standards such as local and state minimum-wage laws indexed to inflation; legislation that requires employers of a certain size to provide sick days to their employees; living-wage laws for firms doing business with local governments; project-labor agreements with strong local-hire provisions covering local development projects. Outside the policy arena, it is important to support the efforts of black workers — and all workers — to organize unions and win good contracts. These battles are important to the entire black community because when they are won, the earning potential of the black community increases.