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Unions Are A Powerful Force For Uplifting The Black Community

This Black History Month we celebrate the powerful, yet often overlooked, role that unions play in giving Black Americans a chance to grab a slice of the American dream. 


The most recent Fed Survey of Consumer Finances reveals that Black families with a union member have built a staggering 348% more wealth than non-union Black families. The same survey tells us that the racial wealth gap between White and Black union families is just half that of their non-union counterparts. These data points are just the latest entries in a long and growing list. They speak to the power of labor unions to promote economic security and upward mobility for the Black community. 


The gains unions have provided for the Black community should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention for the last century and a half. The labor struggle and the fight for racial equality have always been inextricably linked — a fact not lost upon America’s most prominent leaders on racial equality. Former slave and abolitionist Fredrick Douglass spoke at union events and viewed labor rights as a key component of the broader struggle for civil rights. Nearly a century later, in his speeches and writings, Dr. Martin Luther King drew parallels between the struggle for civil rights and the struggle for economic rights. He even referred to unions as the first anti-poverty program. On the day King was murdered, he was supporting a strike by sanitation workers in memphis.

The labor struggle and the fight for racial equality have always been inextricably linked.


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. joins a picket line in support of a strike by the International Chemical Workers Union, Local 754, against discrimination at the Scripto Pen Company, Atlanta, 1964. -- AFL-CIO Still Images, Photographic Prints Collection

Segregationists also understood the power of unions as a force for equality, and did everything to undermine them. Their fight took the form of the so-called “Right To Work” movement, which was the brainchild of Vance Muse, a self-proclaimed “white supremecist” and “greatest lobbyist in America.” He and his organization pushed for anti-union laws with openly racist rhetoric. Literature distributed by Vance’s organization during a 1944 campaign to pass a Right To Work law in Arkansas warned that “white women and white men will be forced into organizations [labor unions] with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.” Unfortunately, this union-busting movement with deeply racist roots has seen a resurgence in recent years, and 27 states currently have Right To Work laws on the books. 


In New York City construction— and on job sites everywhere— Union membership gives Black Americans a voice on the job, a seat at the table and a chance to grab a slice of the American dream. The forces seeking to undermine unions are as fearsome and motivated as they’ve ever been. This Black History Month, Union Built Matters is raising a fist in solidarity with workers everywhere, no matter their race, creed or color. The fight continues.

Mark C

Mark Colangelo is a writer and blogger.

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