“I was pulled this way and that for longer than
I can remember. And the problem was that I always tried to go
in everyone’s way but my own…So after years of trying to adopt
the opinions of others I rebelled. I am an ‘invisible’ man.”
– Ralph Ellison, Invisible
The American labor movement is trying to reinvent
itself – again.
But the process and the outcome could resurrect
skeletons supposedly banished from the House of Labor by “progressive”
leadership in the past decade. These bad skeletons – exclusion,
privilege and inequality – if unchecked, will impede organized
labor’s efforts to become more relevant to a workforce that looks
less and less like the labor movement of the past fifty years.
In fact, nearly 30 percent of the workers in unions today are
people of color – African Americans (14%); Latinos (11%); and
Asian Pacific Americans (3%). Women now make up 42 percent of
That is what makes the AFL-CIO’s executive council
next week in Las Vegas so critical to women and workers of color,
especially black workers. A report released last month by the
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, reveals
a deepening crisis for the 2.1 million black workers holding union
jobs in America.
In 2004 total union membership continued its long-term
decline, dropping by about 300,000, to 12.5 percent of the American
But black union workers took a walloping hit last
55 percent (or 168,000) of the union jobs lost in
2004 were held by black workers, even though they represented
only 13 percent of total union membership.
More stunningly, African American women accounted
for 70 percent of the union jobs lost by women in 2004. Yes, 100,000
black union women – many the sole or primary breadwinner in their
households – lost their paychecks, their job security, medical
insurance for their families and their retirement nest eggs in
just one year. Gone!
Compounding the disproportionate loss of union jobs
in black households – especially those headed by women – are the
shrinking paychecks of black union members. In 2004, federal income
data ranked African American union workers last among all the
major worker groups in median weekly earnings:
|White union weekly earnings
|Asian union weekly earnings
|Latino union weekly earnings
|Black union weekly earnings
More ominously, black union wages declined from 2003
to 2004, while the union wages of all other worker groups – whites,
Asians, and Latinos – increased during the same period. Consequently,
the racial wage gap between black and white union members not only
persists but also is getting wider. In 2003, black union workers
earned 15 percent less than their white counterparts ($665 vs. $779).
By the end of 2004, the gap had grown to 20 percent ($656 vs $808).
The core labor reform agenda posed by these organizations,
who are the legitimate voice of workers of color and women, (1)
maintaining and increasing diversity in leadership and staff positions,
(2) strengthening local labor bodies, (3) and building stronger,
formal ties with labor’s community allies, is the most ironic
intervention in a very pale debate.
Ten years ago, CBTU and its allies pressured the
contenders for the AFL-CIO presidency – John Sweeney, then the
president of SEIU, and Tom Donahue, the AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer
– to commit to increasing the representation of women and people
of color in leadership and staff positions at the federation.
With Sweeney’s October 1995 election as the federation’s new president,
he did push to expand the executive council. As the result of
a constitutional change, the number of minorities on the federation’s
executive council has tripled, from four to 13 members. The House
of Labor became more hospitable to women and people of color.
Or so it seemed…
The AFL-CIO’s cosmetic embrace of diversity may
have sensitized to some extent, but it hardly uprooted, the white
male power structure that has shaped the federation’s internal
culture and dictated its policies since the merger of the AF of
L and the CIO 50 years ago. In fact, many black labor leaders
and union staff workers quietly chafe in the yoke of “official”
diversity, which merely colorizes labor solidarity within a non-inclusive
framework of power relations. Or to give it a brand name, call
it “Diversity Lite: more color, less flava.”
Here’s an example of how Diversity Lite works:
In the 2004 election cycle, the AFL-CIO constituency
groups – which have forged strong alliances and empowered many
urban communities in campaigns for jobs, better schools and voter
education and mobilization – requested funding to run non-partisan
election programs in pro-labor urban areas (particularly in the
South) that were off the political radar screen of “battleground
state” commandos. Collectively, these groups have a network of
chapters nationwide that could reach millions of black, Latino,
Asian and women voters.
Throughout 2003-04, they re-submitted budgets and
plans, each time providing more detail for less and less funding.
After more than a year of “playing the game,” the constituency
groups realized that they had gotten played.
They got nothing, not even chump change –
in spite of the presence of prominent people of color on
the AFL-CIO’s executive council, in spite of the federation’s
past funding of the constituency groups to do similar get-out-the-vote
operations, in spite of the federation’s declared intention
to mobilize voters most likely to support its “Take Back America”
agenda, i.e. women and people of color.
Was labor’s funding spigot dry? Only if Donald Trump
is a broke-ass billionaire, and he’s far from that.
According to federal election reports, the AFL-CIO’s
political action committee (COPE), collected $1.3 million in the
2004 cycle. In fact, the political dollars controlled by the AFL-CIO
was pocket change compared to the huge stash of money raised by
individual unions. According to federal election reports, the
top ten labor PAC’s in the 2004 cycle controlled nearly $75 million,
many with substantial minority membership: (SEIU - $14.7 million;
AFSCME - $13.9 million; UAW - $10.8 million; Teamsters - $10.7
million; District 1199 - $6.8 million).
In addition to these “hard money” war chests, several
unions poured money into so-called “527” organizations. In fact,
16 unions choose to contribute $7.5 million to one such 527, America
Coming Together, instead of funding the AFL-CIO constituency groups,
which are headed by women and people of color. Former AFL-CIO
political director Steve Rosenthal created ACT to take control
of labor’s voter education and turnout campaigns in urban communities.
Labor’s massive political war chest is built on
the trust and paychecks of union members, including African Americans,
Latinos, women and Asian Pacific Americans who, collectively,
are nearly 60 percent of unionized workers.. Yet, few
if any of the people who control the funding spigot in the AFL-CIO
and other unions are people of color. That’s how Diversity Lite
works in reverse: the more money, the less color.
So it is more than ironic that a decade after black
trade unionists successfully thrust color and gender into labor’s
last major leadership “makeover” they and their allies are now
on the defensive, fighting to protect past diversity gains
from the knives of some new “reformers.” Just as ironic, African
American workers are still more likely to join unions than white,
Asian or Latino workers, in spite of labor’s indifference to the
precipitous decline in black union membership. And black union
households are still organized labor’s most consistent political
allies, even when that support is not reciprocated.
Consequently, any major setback for black trade
unionists – either external (i.e., job loss, income decline
or benefit cuts) or internal (i.e., changes that would
stifle their voice, influence or growth) – will inevitably boomerang
on the labor movement as a whole.
What has become even more apparent ten years later
is that “diversity,” in so far as it ever existed beyond the most
superficial and conditional levels in the labor movement, has
reached an impasse.
Black leaders can not simply “show face,” as it’s
said, while being marginalized within labor’s pale power structure.
That would be both wrong and unsustainable. To give life to their
alternative reforms for organized labor, they must go beyond “Diversity
Lite,” they must bust the shackles of exclusion and embrace the
liberating audacity of Ralph Ellison’s nameless protagonist to
claim invisibility as their own power.
Dwight Kirk is a freelance writer living in Washington