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As organized labor grapples with the consequences of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’s landslide defeat at the Amazon mega-warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, one potential direction for the labor movement lies in the types of power- and base-building activities of Black worker centers.
That African American workers need to amass the power to better their conditions is beyond dispute. The American working class is in serious trouble, and Black workers most particularly. The median net wealth of Black families is just $24,100 (lower than any other racial group in America today), while that of white families stands at $188,200. Ongoing institutional and systemic racial discrimination against Black workers persists in housing, health care, education, and employment.
Far more than highly touted entrepreneurship, it’s union membership that has been the dam that has prevented the Black working class from being totally swept under by accelerating economic inequality. Surveys from the Economic Policy Institute show that the wages of unionized Black workers are 14.7 percent higher than those of their non-union counterparts, while the difference between unionized non-Hispanic white workers and their non-union counterparts is just 9.6 percent. Black workers are also 15 percent more likely than the population as a whole to be in unions. (Black Americans are also much more likely to be well represented in union leadership than in Fortune 500 management. Black Americans lead the largest union in the U.S., the National Education Association (Becky Pringle and Kim Anderson); the third-largest, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (Lee Saunders); and such other major unions as the United Auto Workers, the Painters, and AFGE, the largest federal employee union.
In the 1960s, before manufacturing was offshored and employers began opposing all efforts to unionize, the share of Black workers in unions reached nearly 40 percent, while the percentage of all workers in unions peaked in the 1950s at about one-third of the workforce. Today, however, just 10.8 percent of American workers belong to unions, and for Black workers, the percentage has dropped to 12.3 percent. Where once the largest employers, such as General Motors and Ford, were unionized and employed many tens of thousands of African Americans at union-scale wages, today’s largest employers, including Amazon, Walmart, FedEx, and Home Depot, are entirely non-union.
The disappearance of millions of unionized jobs has had a cumulatively devastating effect on Black Americans. Between 1979 and 2016, as the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has reported, “average hourly earnings of black men in the US fell from 80 percent of white male earnings to 70 percent of white male earnings.” For Black women, average earnings fell from near parity with white women to 82 percent of white female earnings.
Union organizing campaigns often depend on reservoirs of working-class consciousness in the workers they seek to organize. But with unions now spread so thinly across the country, and almost completely absent from many states, particularly in the South, organizers often have to build on other forms of consciousness—community, racial, gender. That’s why the point of entry to organizing workers—whether in a union or, given all the obstacles to forming unions, in other kinds of groups—may depend more on establishing a good record for the group in the community. Having a leader at the worksite who has organized people around issues either at the workplace or in their community—getting a discriminatory manager fired, keeping a public school open, getting a stop sign on the corner—will surely help. In Black communities, if that same leader has an understanding of workers’ history—knows what A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, or Fannie Lou Hamer did; knows that Martin Luther King was organizing sanitation workers when he was assassinated; or can connect criminal justice reform to workers’ rights—that’s even better.
In the North and West, many of these organic leaders are the children and grandchildren of active union members. In the South, however, most of the unions organized during World War II collapsed relatively quickly under the weight of right-to-work, Taft-Hartley, McCarthyism, and Jim Crow. In Bessemer, Alabama; North Charleston, South Carolina; or Canton, Mississippi, unions cannot depend on the class consciousness being there. Class consciousness must be redeveloped; the sutures of Black working-class history reopened.
That’s where Black worker centers come in. Worker centers in general serve as a clearinghouse for workers’ needs when forming a union is, for whatever reason (usually weak labor law protections and strong employer opposition), all but impossible. Serving as workers’ advocates in the workplace, where they may combat wage theft or racial discrimination, and in the community, where they’ve taken on racist policing, underfunded schools, poor housing options, or immigrant deportations, worker centers seek to meet such challenges by building and mobilizing the collective power of their members.
Worker centers are not charities. They are vehicles for building power.
The first Black worker centers were Black Workers for Justice, founded in 1981 in North Carolina (a ferociously anti-union state that often has had the lowest unionization rate of any of the 50 states), and the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, founded in 1996. Saladin Muhammad, one of BWJ’s founders, told the Prospect, “We often called ourselves a workplace-based community organization, because the Black community in many instances understood community as a framework for a measure of unity, more than they understood the workplace in the same regard.”
The disappearance of millions of unionized jobs has had a cumulatively devastating effect on Black Americans.
Black Workers for Justice began with a struggle helping Kmart workers, and grew, eventually, to help found the North Carolina Public Service Workers Organization in 1990, a non-majority public-sector union which merged with the left-wing United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) in 1999 to form UE Local 150. It now boasts more than 3,000 members. Non-majority unions are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, which requires majority worker support. As the NLRA has no jurisdiction over the public sector, non-majority unions exist in states that haven’t given collective-bargaining rights to public employees (those that have require majority worker support for recognition). Non-majority unions, then, are found disproportionately in the anti-union South. But that hasn’t stopped unions like UE Local 150 from fighting and winning workplace battles, securing the right to collect dues from their members’ paychecks, and organizing statewide actions to get the legislature to act in favor of public-sector workers. While the goal of such unions is to eventually win collective-bargaining rights, non-majority unions, operating without the security of a contract, can’t rely on routine “business unionism” to be effective or even survive; their strength depends on their ability to organize workers and keep them engaged. Many of the most talented organizers in labor have come out of non-majority unions.
Today, Black Workers for Justice exists in full partnership with UE Local 150. Black Workers for Justice will provide services to any worker who needs help. It organizes in both the public and private sector in the interests of Black workers, building relationships across Black North Carolina, a base that UE Local 150 uses to recruit new leaders to the union. “We pointed out the necessity of struggling against racism as a part of organizing the working class,” said Muhammad. They started small. Initially, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Organization was a “network of small committees,” he said. “We had small campaigns like a safety shoe campaign demanding that employers pay for safety shoes or work equipment. These were important campaigns in connecting people.”
“We saw a widening base in the public sector, while looking for organizing opportunities in the private sector.” Since it began, Black Workers for Justice also has helped build private-sector non-majority unions; it has aided workers at a range of companies, including Cummings, a global diesel motor corporation. In the public sector, the group expanded over the years from its base in university housekeeping and groundskeeping, said Muhammad, “into municipal workers, mental health workers, and into a strong statewide organization.”
“Our perspective on organizing has never been putting a flyer out that says, ‘Black workers, come join the union.’ We put a flyer out that says if you’re having problems at work, whether it’s safety, discrimination, etc., come to a meeting and discuss it. There may have been perceptions that because BWJ has been instrumental in helping to build Local 150 that the focus has been only on recruiting Black workers into the union. That’s not the case at all. It’s been on the recognition of the specific conditions that affect Black workers,” Muhammad said.
ATTORNEY JARIBU HILL FOUNDED the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights in 1996. It is based in Greenville, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. “Our mission is fighting for the dignity and safety of all workers, but our concentrated and intentional focus is on Black workers,” said Hill. Highlighting one of their long campaigns at the unionized Ingalls shipbuilding plant in Pascagoula, Hill described how the worker center represented shipyard workers in both legal and organizing actions after Black shipyard workers were shown nooses. “There were attempted lynchings, racist graffiti, Klan recruitment, Confederate flags, and so on,” Hill said. “We got monetary relief for the workers involved in the legal action. We worked closely with the in-plant Black organization of Ingalls Workers for Justice and did some coalitional work with Black Workers for Justice. It was a people’s victory—and we had no support from the existing unions at the plant.”
“We succeeded because of the strength of workers; their resolve forced the employer to create a zero-tolerance policy for intolerance,” Hill said. “The policy now is that you cannot commit any racist acts. If someone is found to be guilty of these offenses, they will face criminal prosecution and termination. Black workers now have a strong voice at a place that for decades allowed racist terror.”
The worker center has a dues-paying membership and has waged a successful campaign strengthening worker safety provisions during COVID-19. It runs a workers’ circle, meeting every other month, that deals with issues of wage theft and illegal denial of benefits. It also runs public-education campaigns on workers’ rights, and organizes events in public schools and the community on Black history in the Delta.
Steven Pitts, a professor emeritus at the UC Berkeley Labor Center who chairs the board of the National Black Worker Center Project, called Black Workers for Justice and the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights “the bridge between some directions coming out of the Black Power movement and today’s worker activism. The forces behind the creation of these two workers’ centers came out of the Black Liberation Movement that saw the importance of not just race but capitalism—and the importance of organizing Black workers.”
In the South, most of the unions organized during World War II collapsed relatively quickly under the weight of right-to-work, Taft-Hartley, McCarthyism, and Jim Crow.
Tanya Wallace-Gobern is the executive director of the National Black Worker Center Project, which provides support to Black worker centers across the country. “What worker centers do that is phenomenal is helping people to actualize the power that was already within them,” she says. “Where unions are looking for people to lead, we are training workers who are well positioned to fight for the union because they’ve already been fighting within their workplace for protections without a union.”
Wallace-Gobern pointed to the work of Stand With Dignity, a project of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. “We started this initiative called Working While Black, and its first component was to get people to tell their Working While Black story, because we’d come to understand how embarrassed people are to experience racism in the workplace,” she said. “Once people had the opportunity to come together, they could come to what a joint solution to their issues could be. When you’re venting not just to your friend or your partner, it really gets people brainstorming what a potential solution might be.”
One of the first participants, she recalled, was named Ezekiel. He wasn’t able to pursue a job because his driver’s license had been suspended, and he had accrued tens of thousands of dollars in fees and fines from interest and nonpayment. “That was keeping him from having a quality job with benefits,” she said.
Ezekiel’s problems were anything but unique among circle participants. When that became clear, Stand With Dignity announced it would hold a traffic clinic, partnering with law students and a judge. The group expected somewhere between 12 and 20 people to enroll; instead, hundreds of people showed up. The program subsequently grew from a couple hundred people to thousands, traveling from New Orleans to other parishes in Louisiana, and has expanded its scope beyond expunging traffic violations to hearing Black Louisianans tell stories that the circles weave together to show how municipalities use poor people to pay their bills. “People coming together to share their experiences makes a huge difference,” Wallace-Gobern said. “Before you go, you don’t recognize that there’s power in telling your story, and that your experience can help thousands of other people.”
With numbers like that, a change to public policy became possible. This was a turf that the New Orleans Workers’ Center had worked before.
“Our fines and fees campaign was born out of an effort to get local jobs to local people in the post-Katrina reconstruction,” Ursula Price, the executive director of the New Orleans center, told the Prospect. “Our original founding mission was to unite workers who are being locked in by immigration restrictions and workers who are locked out by neoliberal reconstruction that denigrated local labor.”
Now, their mission included the downsizing or removal of those fines and fees. “Over 90 percent of the people who have warrants or debts to the city of New Orleans are people of color, and certainly are the vast majority of those who end up not being able to immediately resolve an issue and to pay the fine,” Price said. “The debt grows over time with more fees and interest, the risk of arrest comes in, and then having to pay bail and miss work. The courts are required to assess ability to pay, but they don’t.”
“Part of our work is to change the system so that people aren’t in a constant cycle of debt incarceration and low-wage work,” she said. To that end, “Last year the city council voted in favor of a resolution clearing all existing fines and fees and changing the system so that ability to pay was factored in. We still have more work to do. The mechanics of actually fulfilling the resolution is where we are at.”
For Ezekiel, at least, the mechanics have already worked. His traffic penalty was reduced to $9.
Worker centers serve as a clearinghouse for workers’ needs when forming a union is, for whatever reason, all but impossible.
LOLA SMALLWOOD CUEVAS IS a project director at the UCLA Labor Center and was the founding executive director of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center. “Workers respond to Black workers centers because they’re not just workers, they’re whole people who are able to make the connection between how the economy works and the other problems that they face,” she said. Smallwood Cuevas described a campaign led by the L.A. Black Worker Center that focused on a light-rail expansion project that would go through working-class Black neighborhoods.
“When we started our campaign, in partnership with other economic-justice organizations and unions, it was intended to advocate for a union agreement that would create construction jobs and create access to good jobs” in the Black community, she said.
But talking to workers redirected their focus. One construction worker named Andre, she recalled, “had a stack of certifications but he could not get a job. He explained that at one construction site he had gone to at 4:30 a.m., someone had called the cops on him.”
“Andre laid out police abuse, the lack of opportunity despite his training, because, he said, ‘he wasn’t the right fit’” for high-quality union construction jobs. “As a workers movement, we had to consider all of the problems that he was facing,” said Smallwood Cuevas. Accompanied by center members with similar experiences, “Andre shared his story with a lot of the decision-makers,” which helped win an agreement that provided both union labor and local hiring provisions on the project. Black representation in the project’s workforce increased from 1 percent when the project began to 23 percent, which, Smallwood Cuevas noted, “was three times what any public construction project had had prior.”
“Andre is now a journeyman carpenter and has built so many projects. His story still sticks with me,” she added, “because it showed the ways in which workers will understand the problems and conditions in their worksite, and then create strategies that make a difference.”
Bill Fletcher Jr., a former education director of the AFL-CIO who works with Black worker centers, sees those centers playing a strategic role in bringing together union and community campaigns. “A broad community justice component is absolutely essential,” he said. “That means engaging community-based organizations and strategizing with them. Black worker centers can play a role in this. Black worker centers can be one of the means to bring together unions and community-based groups with a focus on the Black worker.”
These centers, Smallwood Cuevas concluded, “do the organizing that gives people the tools to identify their relationships and then dig deep there.”
“How deep?” she wondered. “How do we root Black activism and organize Black workers in a way that raises fundamental questions of political economy?”
Matthew Cunningham-Cook is a writer and researcher with expertise in health care, retirement policy, and capital markets. He is a regular contributor to The Intercept and has written for The Nation, Al Jazeera, and In These Times.