UF researcher: Unions must recruit blacks in order to regain influence
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — America’s faltering labor movement will not survive unless unions do more to embrace blacks and other minority workers, says a University of Florida researcher and author of a new book.
“Many people who are involved in the labor movement see African-American workers, other minorities and women as being the key to any hopes of unions recovering some of their organizational strength,” said Robert Zieger, a UF history professor. His new book “For Jobs and Freedom: Race and Labor in America since 1865” was published this fall by University Press of Kentucky.
With the shift from an industrial to a service-based economy, growing numbers of jobs are emerging in places such as hospitals, nursing homes and entertainment complexes, with minorities taking many of these positions, Zieger said. “If unions don’t organize these workers, they’re not going to be able to sustain a very viable and extensive labor movement,” he said.
As organized labor continues its decline by representing an increasingly smaller segment of the American work force, a bright spot has been the Service Employees International Union, which counts janitors, hospital and nursing home workers and home care staffers among its members, Zieger said. “They are the fastest growing union in the country, with about a million and a half members, and they have had a number of outstanding successes in recent years,” he said.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union, which represents police officers, building inspectors, grounds workers, maintenance workers and administrative and clerical workers and others in the nonfederal public sector, also has a large membership, much of it consisting of women and people of color, he said.
“It’s important to recognize that even in a state like Florida, which we don’t normally think of as being a union-friendly state, there are 400,000 union members, and they, along with their families, represent an important potential political voting bloc,” he said.
In the 2000 presidential election, a coalition of organized labor and blacks worked together to target the minority vote, Zieger said. The formation of this black-labor coalition is an important historical development that has received little attention, he said.
“If a Democratic president is elected in 2008, that, along with legislation now pending before Congress that would make the process of union recognition easier, could generate a rebirth of organized labor,” he said. “If it does, it is likely to feature minority workers.”
Until the 1930s, organized labor’s record on race, particularly that of the American Federation of Labor and the railroad unions, was poor, Zieger said. Many unions explicitly barred blacks from membership and even those that did not actively discourage them from joining maintained collective bargaining agreements with employers that excluded blacks, he said.
An exception was the integrated United Mine Workers, the largest union in the first half of the 20th century, which had black officers, even in the South, he said.
In the 1930s, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, actively recruited blacks to work in the rapidly growing auto, steel, textile, meatpacking and rubber tire industries that marked the rise of industrial unionism, Zieger said. “CIO leaders realized that blacks had come to play an important part in these mass-production industries and that if you wanted to organize these industries, you had to organize black workers,” he said.
Even so, blacks tended to occupy less-skilled positions in the factories and often felt that even those unions dedicated to the principles of racial egalitarianism, such as the United Auto Workers Union, weren’t sufficiently responsive to black workers, Zieger said.
“There were tensions going through the post-World War II period and these continue in some ways even today,” he said. “But I think if you look at the current AFL-CIO, which is the primary labor organization in the country, with headquarters in Washington, it seeks to be very responsive to black workers.”
Paul Ortiz, a community studies professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who wrote “Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920,” said Zieger’s book is a crowning achievement. “Professor Zieger’s ‘For Jobs and Freedom’ is the premiere historical synthesis on the complex relationships between African Americans and labor unions from the 19th century to the present,” he said. “It will be the standard text in this field for years to come.”