Skip to main content

labor It's Time to Make Black Lives Matter in Our Unions

Black people have the highest rates of unionization in the United States. But white men hold the most powerful leadership positions, regardless of the make-up of the members themselves.

Workers at a rally with Black Lives Matter Signs
The Movement for Black Lives is encouraging union members to plan "Labor for Black Lives" actions in their communities on Friday, June 19—Juneteenth, Amaury Laporte, CC BY-NC 2.0, cropped from original.

The Movement for Black Lives encouraged union members to plan "Labor for Black Lives" actions in their communities on Friday, June 19—Juneteenth. Actions were part of M4BL's call to Defend Black Lives all across the world. 

Lately I've been feeling like I'm living in a high-action sci-fi thriller. We are in the middle of a global pandemic. Two viruses are causing death and destruction—one is COVID-19 and the other is white supremacy. Because of these two, life looks very different now. I wake up and fall asleep to the sound of police helicopters overhead.

After months of hand-wringing and re-imagining what mobilization will look like in times of social distancing, I’ve found myself suddenly compelled to venture outside, mask, gloves, and hand sanitizer in tow, to join the tens of thousands of people in the streets proclaiming Black Lives Matter!

I was moved to come outside and see that these protests were being led by mostly young people in high school and middle school. They were joined by the members of the community who had been most affected by over-policing. I also saw the usual progressive types from the Democratic Socialists and from nonprofits. I couldn't help but notice the absence of organized labor in the streets.

We are living through a moment of reckoning. Some of our oldest institutions are being examined right now in mainstream discourse. These conversations are uncovering some ugly truths about white supremacist practices in policing, banking, and education. I don't believe that organized labor is exempt from this reflection.


I remember back to my first organizing drive in my workplace. The union had been introduced to me as a sister of the civil rights movement. I heard countless speeches about the commitment to equality and how the house of labor is aligned with the principles of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was proud to be part of a group of fighters who held these values.

As I became more familiar with the inner workings of unions, though, I started to ask, how could an organization that held these values have so little diversity in its staff and elected leadership? I’ve walked through major union offices where the only nonwhite employees were the administrative staff.

Black people have the highest rates of unionization in the United States. But white men hold the most powerful leadership positions, regardless of the make-up of the members themselves. How does this happen? It's not by chance.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

While it's true that Black people in unionized jobs enjoy higher wages and stronger protections on the job, it's also true that unions have pushed Black workers out of jobs after a union drive. Six hundred black shipyard workers were forced out when the Boilermakers bargained a closed shop in Tampa in the early 1940s. A similar situation played out in New Orleans shipyards in 1939.

Blacks were regularly excluded from joining locals through local resolutions and Jim Crow policies. When Black people were allowed to join unions, they were often limited to taking on unskilled work, regardless of their qualifications. Union leaders who controlled apprenticeships would prevent Black workers from getting hired in higher-wage jobs.


Although the AFL-CIO has claimed in recent times to be anti-racist, it has not amounted to much besides empty rhetoric. What can organized labor provide to this moment other than conciliatory statements?

We need to move beyond rhetoric and start to evolve into a movement for racial justice in practice, but what does that mean?

It means being proactive about how you will address racial tensions or racially motivated incidents in the union. It means having a plan in place and people who are ready to address these issues. So many times I've seen locals dance around such issues for fear of dividing the members. We have to be bold and take a side.

Don't wait until the end of the year when you have extra money in the budget, or for the annual convention, to do political education on racial disparities. Invest in this education as a core part of the work for everyone.


It also means that tokenizing members of color has to stop. It's unacceptable that Black members are often pushed in front and hailed as the face of a campaign when the cameras come but are dismissed as equal contributors to campaign strategizing behind closed doors. Put resources behind members' development, mentorship, and listening to them as comrades in the struggle.

We need to be proactive about diversity in leadership and staff. Too many people hold on to positions for decades. If we care about the labor movement surviving, we have to create space for others to come behind us.

Unions could bargain for more than just bread-and-butter demands. I’ll never forget door-knocking for the Auto Workers' Nissan campaign in Canton, Mississippi. One worker admitted the issues with the company but confided that he was going to give them another chance to make things right.

When asked why, he said that before getting the job he was living with his wife and three children in their in-laws' double-wide trailer. Having a job at Nissan allowed him to attain a company car, his own home, and even horses. He did not see the union fight being connected with the social and economic forces that put him in his original poverty situation.


Many Black people do not see their union as a vehicle to address issues they face every day. We know this does not have to be true, when we look at the examples of the Chicago and Los Angeles teachers unions with their recent contract strikes.

In Los Angeles the union made demands around class size, a stop to random searches of students, and more resources for mental health and counselors. It built a community coalition around saving neighborhood schools and rejecting charter schools. Similarly, the Chicago Teachers Union made what was seen as radical demands around housing: no evictions during the school year, a city commitment to create more affordable housing, money to support homeless students with school supplies and transportation. CTU recognized that housing security was a primary concern for members, parents, and the community as a whole.

For Black people, justice has been delayed for far too long. If organized labor is serious about existing in another 30 years, we will need to reject the idea that addressing race in unions is divisive. Organized labor will have to acknowledge its past faults, articulate a vision of true social and economic equity, and exercise our power as labor to achieve that vision.

This moment is calling on us for imagination, tenacity, accountability, and resolve to make a plan and stick to it.