Labor Power Is the Key to Racial Equity

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President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January, he’ll inherit a country
that’s riven with divisions along ethnic and socio-economic lines. The
central tenets of his “Build Back Better” plan suggest that his administration
will confront these divisions head on and seek to ameliorate them in a variety
of ways. One of the guiding principles involves fostering a stronger sense of
race equity—a goal that’s as large and amorphous as it is ambitious. But there
are short, sharp steps the president can take to get his arms around the task.
And nothing would have more hard-dollar value than organizing the working
class—all of it, Black, brown, and white. It will go a long way toward bringing people
together. Or at least it would put them
in the same union halls 
out of individual self-interest.

The single best
way to begin to spur this solidarity, as well as the economic benefits that
would follow, is to push the same Protecting the Right to Organize Act,
which the House passed in January. There’s reason
to believe Biden might be inclined to do so: He may be the first pro-union
Democratic president in our adult lifetimes—or at least the first to say, in a meeting of CEOs, “I’m a union guy.” That’s the kind of thing that Obama or Clinton or Carter would have
only said, if at all, on Labor Day, at a labor rally.

At some point in
the next four years—yes, even if there is bad news from Georgia—the Senate
could flip and open wider doors to shoring up labor rights. In the meantime, we can at least reintroduce
labor law reform as a race equity measure, maybe the race equity
measure, now that there are civil rights laws aplenty on the books. After all, Martin Luther King Jr., who died
leading a labor strike, regarded it that way; the March on Washington in 1963
was a labor funded event, conceived in part by Bayard Rustin, who was working
for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). But let us also consider
a bill like PRO as a practical form of Black reparations, actually on offer; while
it is not true Black reparations, it is at least a share of capital
wealth. In 2018, the Center for
American Progress compared the wealth of union-member and
non-member households and uncovered some interesting disparities when those households were broken out along racial lines. For Black
Americans, the difference is remarkable: Median union household wealth is
$22,106; the non-union median is $2,371. And for Hispanic workers, the wealth effect of membership is just as
great: $33,696 for union households and $3,093 for non union.

The wealth effect
of union membership is a five-fold increase in wealth for every Black American
who joins a union, or 486 percent. If
white union members have higher wealth, and they do, that’s partly the
accident of inheriting union membership in the last redoubts of organized labor,
especially in the air and rail industries as well as the older building
trades. But the disparity exists because
union membership keeps shrinking. There
is no disparity in access to union membership overall; Blacks are slightly more
likely than whites to be union members. There are just very few union members.

We can think of
labor law reform as a civil rights act, a form of twenty-first century
Reconstruction. But it is also a form of
moral Reconstruction, a way of reeducating millions in this country into the
norms of citizenship. It will also go a
considerably long way toward purging some of the poison of the Trump years.

After the 2020
election, there were calls in the usual places—NPR, The New York Times, the
non-hallucinatory media—for a national conversation on race. Fine, I’m all for it. Let a thousand more books be published. But for my entire adult life, there has been
a national conversation on race. Instead of a mere conversation, it would be preferable
if whites and Blacks just went out and did something together. These national conversations are more likely
to bear fruit and engender action if they take place at union
halls. Americans of all races will more
readily bridge divides and set old prejudices down by the side of the road if
they have the opportunity to do the most important thing they can do—increase
their share of not just labor income but capital income or savings—arm in
arm. Together, they can lift one another out of the vicious cycle of living
paycheck to paycheck. 

This pursuit of
self-interest would raise the moral character of Black, brown, and white working
people alike. In a way, this reflects de
Tocqueville’s point about the effect of New England town meetings on their
participants’ moral core. As he argued, we Americans may get involved in
politics purely out of self interest, but the pursuit can end up transforming
us wherever we come together to work for shared goals. We come to have a sense of public
responsibility for what we have created. And at least it is enlightened altruism to make sure that race does not
tear apart the much larger unions we might create.

And finally, apart
from either the wealth effect or the effect on moral character, it is just
impossible to think there can ever be racial equity under our colossally unfair
distribution of income. Under our form
of capitalism, somebody is always going to be untouchable: If not Blacks locked
up in blighted, redlined urban enclaves, we’ll recruit another minority group
to live at the bottom of the pile. 

today is not like racism in the 1950s and 1960sand it’s not merely the
product of income inequality but rather a different form of capitalism that
has risen. Like everything else, racism has undergone a change as the country went from a relatively egalitarian and social democratic form of capitalism that was tainted by Jim Crow to what some
describe as liberal meritocratic capitalism. There is an especially chilling description in Branko Milanovic’s 
Capitalism, Alone: It is an unequal, rigged meritocracyand may be on
the verge of being much less liberal. 

is this form of capitalism that explains the maddening way there is so much
racial progress and so much racial backsliding. It has the effect of raising some Black
Americans to dizzying heights, right up to the presidency. But it has left
nonwhite working people looking up from much further down than before
like white working people have to look up, too. And it has lowered the lowest economic
caste. We can defund the police, but any
low-income group locked up in impoverished and neglected neighborhoods will
always be vulnerable to some form of violence.

The capitalism we now have is not the kind that
King or Rustin or others anticipated. It was no accident that King was a kind of labor leader in his own
way. The premise of the civil rights
movement, at least in the 1950s and up to the time of the Vietnam war, was to bring Blacks into organized labor,
which had such great power in that day. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 places great emphasis specifically on suing
to get into union membership. And with respect to most unions, though not all,
that strategy was successful—except for the fact that organized labor
disappeared (or more precisely, it was killed by the Republican party, big
business, and an accommodating judiciary). King was not naïve about this emerging world. He once gave a remarkable speech to the AFL-CIO in 1961 not just about race but also about finding new ways to counter both the
automation and the outright deindustrialization that he saw coming.

Suppose we were
able to flip a switch and end racism as we know it. Even a color-blind version of our form of rigged meritocracy would still leave tens of millions of Black Americans
without any security or hope of economic advancement. People
at the topthe top 10 percent or so, including the fraction who may be Blackhave too much financial and human capital to be dislodged. It is worse for Black Americans but bad
enough for most everyone else. 

We’ve heard enough about wage increases; working-class Black Americans and the rest of our working class need capital income or
wealth. The best way, historically, for American
workers to save and take a greater share of capital wealth was by doing so
collectively. This was the great thing
about organized labor in its golden age: It forced the working class to save,
in the only safe way that it can save, in pension funds, health and welfare
funds, and other institutions protected by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). And then it took a larger and larger share of
capital wealth. 

At the end of the post-New Deal period, the celebrated management guru, Peter Drucker, a conservative,
The Unseen Revolution: How Pension Fund Socialism Is Transforming
which described how collectively
bargained ERISA funds were going to transform the nature of capitalism. Indeed, ERISA was passed in anticipation of
that very thing. Working people
effectively owned 25 percent of the capital, and it could have gone up. That’s what King and Rustin and other civil
rights leaders grasped: That the future belonged to people like Walter Reuther,
who was the president of the United Auto Workers. 

This collective form of savingsa kind of
forced savings
protected the wealth of working people from both
predators and their own worst impulses, and it still does to a lesser extent in
a much weaker labor movement today. In
that respect, the redistribution of wealth through union members is more
permanent and lasting than a check written out as Black reparations, however
much deserved, and far more likely to get a return over time. More importantly, the necessary precondition
for Black reparations, or Black equity, is a form of capitalism in which
people are less likely to be robbed by the creditors class because their own collectively
bargained institutions are sturdy enough to offer protection. 

It might be
difficult to understand on an emotional level, but the best way to build
the wealth of working-class Black Americans is to similarly build the wealth of
working-class white Americans as well. Something about that notion slightly offends our sense of justice. What
kind of race equity is that? It may be too much to askat least from
Americans locked up in racially isolated neighborhoods and subject to white
for that kind of fraternity. But we had glimpses of it once before,
imperfectly, partially, and it worked. The late Congressman
John Lewis joined Keith Ellison as lead sponsor of a bill
that would have created a civil right to be a union member, modeled on the
Civil Rights Act of 1964. Lewis, who
marched with King, grasped that the civil right to join a union was a necessary complement to the civil rights enumerated in the 1964 law. 

So, yes, we can have another conversation about race. But if we want to stop talking and start doing something together, we could pass the PRO Act. Perhaps the Biden administration will take up this cause and try to deliver on the labor-based vision of  King and Rustin and the late John Lewis. Maybe
instead of arguing over defunding the police, we might all agree to defund Wall
Street and other plutocratic schemes and get money back into the hands of the people who truly earned it.

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