Blacks are staunch union loyalists but remain outsiders in organized labor. This persistent irony must be addressed if Blacks are to receive proper benefits from their respective unions–and in the broader perspective, the civil rights movement. Other social justice movements leap-frogged Blacks in achieving their objectives through greater solidarity and effective organizing-women’s and gay and lesbian rights efforts are prime examples.
The race (Black) question in labor is clearly evident in Los Angeles where Latinos’ overwhelming numbers alone resulted in their receiving preferred treatment among both rank-and-file and high level decision-making positions. The same numbers-related, preferred status dynamic is found in public schools and in greater Latino employment opportunities, especially in lower paying jobs.
Latino gains are juxtaposed to a continuation of Black workers disparities, despite being among organized labor’s strongest supporters. (However, Blacks also seem to have a propensity for accepting rather than challenging their lesser status.) Many feel that Latino immigrants, illegal and legal, have taken their jobs. This is often true, especially with low wage jobs, but only a part of a much bigger picture. Language and family ties are also now prominent factors in Latinos getting certain jobs over Blacks.) Unfortunately, many Blacks’ Latino-focused, anti-immigration feelings reinforce white extremists’ racist campaigns that de-value both Blacks and Latinos.
The importance of its leadership addressing the unique plight of Black people in America cannot be over-emphasized. Since the 1960s, working-class families and low-income communities have suffered disproportionately as jobs were increasingly outsourced and manufacturing plants closed in urban areas. In Los Angeles, for example, the closure of automobile plants and Goodyear Tire Company are well known, but only a portion of a confluence of factors contributing to the area’s economic downturn.
The economic decline was particularly severe for Blacks, as new avenues for housing and jobs opened outside of the inner cities. Strong social networks that previously sustained Blacks broke down when many left the inner cities. Consequently, fewer local job opportunities and a new global economy required high skilled, high-tech opportunities that served to eliminate labor-intensive lower-level labor-intensive jobs that thereto fore provided Blacks economic stability. The transformation in jobs and opportunities, as well as shifting Black neighborhoods, contributed to new, mostly Latino, immigrants beginning to occupy previous Black housing and employment spaces.
Arguably, the erosion of opportunities resulting from civil rights gains (largely for the Black middle-class) and the huge continuing influx of immigrants from Mexico and other Latin America countries, increased tensions between Blacks and the new immigrants.
Steven Pitts, sociology professor at UC Berkeley’s Labor Center, argues, and I agree, that this tension will never be adequately addressed unless there is a sustained movement to tackle the variety of complex underlying issues, many race-based, that disproportionately affect Blacks. Pitts says such a movement should include three elements. First, recognition that not all Blacks are native-born and not all immigrants are non-Black. He asserts positioning Blacks “against” immigrants ignores this reality and renders invisible the disparate immigrant experiences of Blacks from Haiti, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Africa.
Second, he argues that what distinguishes social movements is the different social basis of each movement. For example, the core of the modern civil rights movement was racial justice. Similarly, he contends the core of the immigrant upsurge in America in recent years has been the culture of the Latino community: Its experiences and demands for justice are valid on their own merits without the imprimatur of the modern civil rights movement. “Attempts to frame the immigrant rights movement as the new civil rights movement deny the historical reality and validity of the Black core of the modern civil rights movement.”
Third, the Black community faces both a crisis of unemployment and a low-wage work. (This is the principal basis for the formation of the Black Workers Center in Los Angeles.) And Pitts feels an explanation of the crisis must be developed which centers on the effect of historical and contemporary institutional racism that must emphasize the crucial role of employers, after all, there the ones that determine who gets hired and fired, but have yet to be held accountable..
Pitts also suggests that organizing is as important as reframing the issues. Unions should develop strategies that deal directly with the low-wage crisis in the Black community by providing Blacks with real opportunities for advancement and decision-making. “Finding creative mechanisms to preserve public sector jobs and transforming the human services sector (e.g., child care, in-home care, health care, etc.) would go far in addressing the job crisis in the Black community.” And unions should be in the forefront in developing labor-community action strategies that benefit Black workers who obviously are not traditional high-priority targets.
Steven Pitts’ analysis and proposed solutions are sound but do not address the indispensable but up to now, non-existent sustainable pressure that must be exerted by Black workers themselves and the Black community for actual change. Together, they are the core force that will determine whether organized labor benefits Black workers or continues to exploit them.
Finally, the role of Black leadership, within and outside of labor unions, is crucial and should be based on group-oriented, moral and ethical principles. Actual change means new realities built on common values that benefit not only Black workers, but the entire Black community.