Unions: Ensuring Social Justice for African Americans

John Schmitt and Dean Baker
AFL-CIO Point of View, April 2, 2008

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This month marks the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in Memphis, Tenn. As the country notes this tragic event, we also should remember why King was in Memphis that fateful day.

King was there to support municipal sanitation and sewer workers who were on strike for better pay, benefits and working conditions. The workers, who were nearly all black, were poorly paid and treated with contempt by the city government. The last day in January 1968, black sewer workers had been sent home without pay on a day with bad weather; their white co-workers stayed on the clock to wait out the bad weather. The next day, two black sanitation workers—Echol Cole and Robert Walker—were crushed to death on the job. Two weeks later, the city's 1,100 sanitation workers and 200 sewer workers went on strike, drawing national media attention.

Over the next several months, King made several trips to Memphis to support the strikers and their families. King saw the strike as part of the broader struggle for social justice. As he said on one of his visits to Memphis: "We know that it isn't enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?"

The Memphis sanitation and sewer workers did ultimately win their strike, including improved pay, benefits and working conditions. Their success was part of a period of U.S. history when union jobs helped lift millions of African Americans into the middle class.

Perhaps the best example of this upward mobility occurred in unionized manufacturing, including sectors like the auto and steel industries. In the three decades following the end of World War II, manufacturing offered good middle-class jobs to millions of African Americans who had themselves grown up in poverty. These newly middle-class workers were able to afford decent homes and cars. They had health insurance and pensions. They could take vacations and send their children to college.

Over the past three decades, however, this situation has taken a turn for the worse as both the number of jobs in manufacturing and the number of unionized jobs have declined sharply. In 1979, for example, manufacturing accounted for nearly one-quarter of all jobs in this country and about the same share of the total workforce was in a union. Today, only about one-in-10 jobs is in manufacturing, and roughly 13 percent of the workforce is in a union or represented by one at their workplace.

The decline in manufacturing employment reflects, in part, the country’s massive and long-standing trade deficit. Instead of producing goods here, we now import a large share of the manufactured goods we consume.

Meanwhile, probably the most important reason for the simultaneous drop in unionization was corporate America's deliberate decision to adopt a more hostile attitude toward unions. Many firms have relocated plants overseas or in states with little union presence as part of a conscious effort to evade unions. As researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner has documented, many more firms have threatened to relocate in order to discourage workers from supporting unions, even though such threats are a violation of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Employers also regularly violate other aspects of the NLRA designed to protect workers' freedom to form unions. Research at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR, where we both work) has estimated that one-in-five workers actively involved in organizing a union can expect to be fired in the middle of a union organizing election. While such firings are a clear violation of the law, firing union supporters has proven to be an effective method of obstructing organizing drives because the penalties are small even if employers get caught.

Simple measures, however, would make it substantially easier for workers to join unions. The Employee Free Choice Act, for example, would allow workers to form a union after getting a majority of workers to sign cards indicating their support for a union. This alternative system would let workers organize without giving management a window of opportunity to fire union supporters in the current, slow-moving process.

If the U.S. Congress succeeds in passing the Employee Free Choice Act, the legislation would be an important step toward restoring a route to the middle class for African Americans. New CEPR research shows that black workers represented by unions earn, on average, 12 percent more per hour than their nonunion counterparts. The research also demonstrates that unionized black workers are 16 percentage points more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and 19 percentage points more likely to have a pension.

The struggle to ensure equality for African Americans is long and difficult. There are no shortcuts toward reaching this goal. However, as Martin Luther King Jr. understood, unions are an important part of the picture. We can continue to learn from the Rev. King even 40 years after his tragic death.

John Schmitt is a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is also a visiting lecturer at the Pompeu Fabra University (Barcelona). Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer (www.conservativenannystate.org).