The Importance of Unions for Workers of Color

Unions Offer Protection and Access to the Middle Class

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Unions bolster opportunities for all workers in our country. They encourage political participation and offer access to the middle class, as a recent report from the Center for American Progress Action Fund explains. But unions and their benefits are especially important for communities of color, for whom unionization has long been a critical component of their economic mobility.

Workers who lack the collective leverage that unions provide are more distanced from the middle-class earnings and resources their unionized peers have, and this is particularly true for workers of color. Indeed, numbers show that most nonunion, nonwhite public-sector workers today fall farther below the median income of their white coworkers than they would with a union safety-net. And workers of color, including Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, and Pacific Islanders, are often concentrated at the low-end of the wage spectrum—jobs which often benefit the most from the protection of unions. [1]

In lower-wage industries where union busting dramatically tempers access to competitive benefits, workers of color slide even farther down the wage scale. In the case of Wisconsin, and the impending attempts to decimate unions’ collective bargaining power in Indiana and Ohio, people of color are increasingly being shut out of decent work and incomes because of weakened standards and lowered wage floors. These shutouts undermine the concentrated efforts that slowly inched workers of color toward closing the racial wealth gap that plagues low and middle-income people of color the most.

Although some wage gaps have been narrowed, it remains evident that the middle-class status-markers of competitive industry wages, comprehensive healthcare, and retirement benefits continually prove elusive for workers in lower-wage industries and public-sector work. Where workers of color are occupationally segregated—statistically crowded out of higher-wage, predominately white worker occupied jobs—available positions are decreasingly unionized (if at all) in addition to being low-income-earning positions with little to no benefits.[2] In this context, the success of unions in boosting socioeconomic mobility becomes inarguably apparent.

Without union leadership and protection, many people of color—with particular historical emphasis on African Americans—would not have accessed the middle class. [3] Black workers fought hotly contested, deadly fights for access to unions in order to secure basic protections and economic equity. The successful unionization of integrated workplaces over the last 140 years not only increased the wages of African Americans—who were otherwise making nickels to white workers dollars—but it also raised the overall floor for antidiscriminatory labor standards in hiring and benefit distribution. African-American workers collectively leveraged their arduous labor in exchange for safer conditions and better compensation by forming and joining unions— gaining standard protections historically denied to American workers descended of America’s enslaved.

What gains African Americans have made through union protection and collective bargaining aren’t as accessible for other groups because of diminishing unionization. On one hand, many Latinos, who have been in the United States for generations, have been able to leverage the same gains as their African-American counterparts by joining unionized workforces. On the other, as established and newer Latino communities continue to grow in the United States, many of the 23 million Latinos presently in the workforce stand a different, lower chance for middle-class means than they did in the past.

For new Americans, such as recent Latino immigrants and their first-generation American children, the concurrent decrease in unionization rates, the rise in Latino workforce growth, and Hispanic over-representation in low-wage work spells peril. The hard-fought access to unions that improved the economic standing for African-American workers could afford the same opportunities to immigrants and their children. In the absence of unions’ protective force, however, transient workers searching for immediately available work signal to predatory employers that they are economically vulnerable and desperate.

In addition to having fewer economic levers, Latinos in the United States are less likely to have college degrees than white and African-American workers, and are crowded out of the increasingly college degree-based sector of good jobs. Where unions lower wage inequalities for workers without college degrees, the steady decline of unionization rates make Latino workers increasingly vulnerable in the quest for fair and beneficial employment.

Conclusively, without access to competitive pay in the public sector, collective bargaining and employer-provided benefits, the incomes of marginalized groups in the workforce would be even lower than their current amount. Workers of color’s access to the middle class will be infinitely narrowed without unionization. This is why workers of color and their allies must defend unions in the face of a growing, state-by-state onslaught. Where unions are defended, they can be restored and improved by the fierce engagement of members of color. As unions reach a pivotal point in their American history, this is the time for workers who stand to lose so much to fight for them, win for them, and make them even better for the future.

 Folayemi Agbede is the Special Assistant for Progress 2050, a project of the Center for American Progress.

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[1] Looking at the data, Asian workers tend to seem better off than white workers in wages because Asian communities are largely concentrated in states with high-costs of living. Therefore, the range of their median income is skewed by substantial population concentration in comparatively higher-wage states such as New York, California, and New Jersey. It remains true that public-sector workers are low- and middle-wage workers when compared to others in their areas.

[2] There are gender and race differentials in wages within unions that are accounted for by a number of factors, including steering workers to lower paid nonmanagerial positions, discrimination in hiring, and promotional inequalities. All of this goes to say that unions are not infallible or immune to market discrimination, but they do keep historically marginalized workers from hitting economic floors.

[3] "African American" also includes Caribbean and African persons who are not ethnically African American but also racially "black." These groups of immigrants and their American-born descendants have also benefitted directly from raised working standards although they still face much workplace exploitation in alternative economies.