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How Unions Fight Social Exclusion in the Labor Market

Amy Traub

"Gentlemen, the Pullman Company is ready to sign." With that concession from the company president on August 25, 1937, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters became the first black labor union to win a collective bargaining agreement with a major American corporation. After 12 years of struggle facing intense company opposition, the union of more than 8,000 African Americans working segregated jobs as train porters and maids won higher pay, shorter work hours, improved working conditions, and a critical element of respect and dignity. Saving their wages and tips, unionized porters and maids sent their children and grandchildren to college, supporting social mobility across generations.

In a recent series of blog posts, I’ve looked at the impact of social exclusion in today’s labor market and workplace, documenting how large employers and their political allies deploy the constructed notion that workers of color are less deserving than white workers of employment, and especially of good jobs with the wages and benefits that enable working people to thrive and to sustain a family. The victory of the Sleeping Car Porters 81 years ago this week demonstrates how joining together in unions has long been a powerful means of overcoming social exclusion in the workplace and thus building an inclusive economy that enables the full participation and power of black workers.

Like almost every institution in the U.S., unions themselves are struggling with a legacy of racial discrimination. Leaders of the American Federation of Labor initially refused to grant the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters an international charter, holding out until the union gained enough strength to force recognition in 1935, becoming the first black union to join the labor federation. Today, the AFL-CIO honors the history of the Sleeping Car Porters and draws much of its strength from union members of color. In 2017 more than a third of union workers were black, Asian, or Latino. Black workers are more likely than workers of any other race to be represented by a union.

Unions contribute to structural inclusion by negotiating for pay transparency, protections from discrimination and harassment, and clear processes for raises and promotions that limit opportunities for managerial bias. As a result, the Economic Policy Institute finds that hourly wages for black workers represented by unions are 14.7 percent higher than wages paid to black workers who are not in unions, after controlling for other factors. Latino workers represented by unions are paid 21.8 percent more than their nonunionized counterparts. By diminishing social exclusion in the workplace, union negotiations lift the wages of workers of color closer to those of their white counterparts (white workers also see a substantial pay boost from unionization, but it is smaller), effectively reducing racial and ethnic pay gaps. Because union representation also decreases gender pay gaps, women of color see particularly large pay benefits from unionization. Workers of color who are represented by unions also benefit from greater access to employer-provided health coverage and retirement plans, as well as paid vacation and holidays. In addition, the labor movement played a key role in supporting civil rights beyond the workplace.

As Caleb Gayle recently pointed out in The Guardian, unions helped to build the black middle class, reducing the systemic economic disadvantages faced by African-American workers. But social exclusion is not so easily defeated. In my previous post, I discussed how corporate interests have consistently manipulated racism to turn working people against each other, pushing down wages, undermining solidarity, and weakening the freedom to stand together in unions. This effort includes a political push to erode the laws that make it possible for working people to organize: The Pullman porters, for example, had tried to form a union to combat degrading workplace treatment since the 1880s. It was not until the passage of laws such as the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which banned the Pullman Company’s worker intimidation tactics and outlawed its fake, company-controlled union, that the workers were able to gain recognition and win a contract.

Yet for decades, corporate interests and their political and judicial allies have assaulted the protections provided by the National Labor Relations Act and other pro-worker reforms. Employers have taken advantage of weak laws to restrict workers’ freedom to join together in unions. Although most Americans today have a positive view of labor unions, the percentage of working people represented by a union at work has declined substantially since the 1970s. The Supreme Court’s recent rulings in the Janus and Epic Systems cases are the latest blows to workers’ freedom. The Janus case in particular will have a strong negative effect on black women, because they are disproportionately represented in the public sector jobs where Janus undermines workers’ unions.

As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders recognized, the freedom to join unions and work through them to advance economically has always been essential to achieving racial equity and social inclusion. King’s last campaign was a labor struggle: Just before he was assassinated, Dr. King addressed striking African-American sanitation workers in Memphis, who as King noted were paid “wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.” At the same time, King told the workers, “Along with wages and all of the other securities that you are struggling for, you are also struggling for the right to organize and be recognized.” It is no coincidence that when Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, it was at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom organized with A. Philip Randolph, the original leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.