Bookmark and Share
Click to go to the home page.
Click to send us your comments and suggestions.
Click to learn about the publishers of and our mission.
Click to search for any word or phrase on our Website.
Click to sign up for an e-Mail notification only whenever we publish something new.
Click to remove your e-Mail address from our list immediately and permanently.
Click to read our pledge to never give or sell your e-Mail address to anyone.
Click to read our policy on re-prints and permissions.
Click for the demographics of the audience and our rates.
Click to view the patrons list and learn now to become a patron and support
Click to see job postings or post a job.
Click for links to Websites we recommend.
Click to see every cartoon we have published.
Click to read any past issue.
Click to read any think piece we have published.
Click to read any guest commentary we have published.
Click to view any of the art forms we have published.

“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 Man

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 union membership.

That is what makes the AFL-CIO’s executive council meeting 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 workforce.

But black union workers took a walloping hit last year:

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).

This glaring double disparity of high union job losses and shrinking union paychecks for African American workers has gone strangely unmentioned in the debate over organized labor’s diminished power and its capacity to rebound. The fact that the leading voices calling for drastic changes in the AFL-CIO have failed to get up from their stools of indifference to even acknowledge the clearly racialized impact of economic conditions on black trade unionists is appalling but certainly not surprising.

Among the dozen or so proposals to reform the AFL-CIO, several plans would, in fact, undermine the presence and influence of women and people of color in the labor movement. Some of the major changes that would pose a threat to these groups include:

  • Reducing the size of the AFL-CIO executive council
  • Streamlining the national AFL-CIO
  • Reducing the role of state and local labor bodies
  • Eliminating all but 20 of the AFL-CIO’s 60 unions through mergers
  • Eliminating constituency group representatives on the AFL-CIO’s executive council

The central argument behind these so-called “reforms” is that the labor movement cannot respond effectively to the concentrated power of employers in the workplace and in politics unless it consolidates union resources and activity into a revamped national structure – dominated by a few big powerful unions. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters union are the most vocal advocates of this reform approach, which has drawn a sharp rebuttal from the AFL-CIO constituency groups, representing African American, women, Latino and Asian Pacific American union members.

In a position paper issued earlier this month by the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, which was founded in 1972, with more than 50 chapters nationwide and in Canada, representing more than 50 international unions, the coalition “strongly suggests” that:

“The federation [AFL-CIO] leadership resist the call to reduce the size of the Executive Council. The added size of the Council bears no relationship to the decline in labor’s fortunes…to turn inward and return to the structure that existed when the movement went into decline strikes us as unwise and unworkable in terms of our fundamental goals.”

Other AFL-CIO constituency groups have amplified similar concerns. In a joint unity statement submitted to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, they say:

“We are concerned about the continuing lack of diversity among various leadership bodies within the AFL-CIO, affiliated unions, state federations, central labor bodies, and local unions…In order to achieve the potential of a strong, unified labor movement, we must all fully participate in governance and the development of labor’s agenda.”

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 DC.


February 24 2005
Issue 127

is published every Thursday.

Printer Friendly Version