Politics Mondays: Labor Rights Are Civil Rights by Julian Bond
I know the mutual benefits that grew from the historic alliance between organized labor and the movement for civil rights—benefits we all must work to strengthen and extend today.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most labor unions excluded blacks. Unorganized blacks were used as scabs when white unionists went on strike. The old divide-and-conquer strategy was put to good use by corporate bosses. The labor movement’s racism was used against it to great effect.
Things began to change when A. Philip Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in the 1920s. Blacks scored a major breakthrough in the struggle for admission to the ranks of organized labor in 1930 when the AFL recognized the Brotherhood.
In 1924, the NAACP helped create the Interracial Labor Commission. Its goal was to bring more blacks into the labor movement. It worked. Thousands of black workers joined the ranks of the organized rank-and-file in the ensuing years as widespread discrimination began to fall, and they quickly became some of labor’s most disciplined and dedicated foot soldiers, infusing the movement with renewed energy and vigor.
In many organizing campaigns in the 1930s and 1940s, especially in the South, black workers were the first to join, were the most steadfast and the most militant. This was true of campaigns to organize longshoremen along the Mississippi River, in ports of the Gulf of Mexico and on the Eastern Atlantic Coast and in largely black mining regions in Alabama and West Virginia.
Given our common interests, minority Americans and organized labor are both better off when we cooperate. Most of us are working people. Our interests and your interests are the same.
In 1961, when Martin Luther King Jr., addressed the AFL-CIO Fourth Constitutional Convention in Bal Harbour, Fla., he spoke of the “unity of purpose” between the labor movement and the movement for civil rights. He said:
“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community….The duality of interests of labor and Negroes makes any crisis which lacerates you a crisis from which we bleed. As we stand on the threshold of the second half of the twentieth century, a crisis confronts us both.”
Now, as we stand on the threshold of the 21st century, a crisis confronts us once again.
It is a crisis for the freedom movement and a crisis for the movement of working women and men. Despite impressive increases in the numbers of black people holding public office, despite our ability now to sit and eat and ride and vote and attend school in places that used to bar black faces, in some important ways non-white Americans face restrictions more difficult to attack than in the years that went before.
The current leadership of the House and Senate is as hostile to civil rights as any in recent memory—on a report card prepared by the NAACP, they fail!
In recent years, in a stealthy, devious campaign, the enemies of justice and fair play have whittled away at the components of the progressive coalition. They’ve promoted deeply flawed economic and foreign policies. They’ve passed tax cuts that were not only unfair but unaffordable.
How did they do it? How did they make political hay from barnyard straw?
They did it by coupling ostentatious piety with a victim mentality. They quoted Martin Luther King and misused his message, all the while profiting from a supine press. They reinforced their message by harnessing a round-the-clock perpetual motion attack-machine and echo chamber. And some Democrats won’t take their own side in a fight.
They’re attacking Social Security, the underpinning of every American’s dream of retirement free from need and want. They want private charity to replace government’s helping hand, substituting faith-based organizations free to discriminate and proselytize for the fairness and secularism required of the public sector.
They’ve outsourced thousands and thousands of jobs—now they’re even outsourcing torture, sending suspects to foreign lands. They’ve gone after labor unions, making it harder for workers to organize.
We are today the most economically stratified of all industrial nations, the gap between rich and poor larger than in Britain, Italy, Germany, Canada, France, Finland—larger here and growing faster here than anywhere else.
And for those workers whose skins are black or brown, the gap is greater and the prospects bleaker. Today the net financial assets of black families in which one member has a post-graduate degree are lower than white families in which the highest level of education achieved is graduation from elementary school.
But we know black union members earn more than their non-union counterparts: In 2003, the average non-union black worker earned $491 a week, while the average earnings of blacks who were union members were $665. That’s like a 35 percent paycheck bonus.
While once blacks couldn’t get a union card, today they and other minorities are disproportionately represented in terms of the total American population. Polls show that when asked, 77 percent of blacks say they’d join a union. Only 49 percent of whites say the same.
More than 40 years ago, a coalition of progressive forces brought justice to the segregated South. That same coalition created the New Deal this callous Congress has tried to repeal.
That coalition can shape public policy once again.
Minority Americans have better lives because of labor’s struggles. Labor supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991. We know labor will be with us when we fight for renewal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The interests of minorities and labor are inevitably bound together; as Martin Luther King said, “When you are cut, we bleed.”
When labor reaches out its hand to racial minorities, labor and minorities win. When either turns its back on the other, each loses, America loses. We all lose.
Julian Bond is a Distinguished Professor in the School of Government at American University in Washington, D.C., and a Professor of History at the University of Virginia. In February 1998, he was elected Chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors. The preceding was excerpted from Julian Bond’s speech to the AFL-CIO 25th Constitutional Convention in July and appears on the AFL-CIO website.
Monday, December 12, 2005