Unionization Decreasing Among Black Workers

Union membership among blacks has dropped by almost 50% in the last two decades, according to a study by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research.

The study found that 31.7% of all black workers were unionized in 1983, but only 16.6% were in 2004. Last year, 2.18 million African American workers were union members, or 15.1% of the 14.46 million employed blacks, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

Disappearing union jobs explains the decline, says Gerald Jaynes, professor of economics and African American studies at Yale University and a member of the BLACK ENTERPRISE Board of Economists. Manufacturing accounts for many union jobs, and tens of thousands of union workers have been laid off in recent weeks by Detroit’s Big Three automakers. “De-unionization” is another trend, as organizing union shops has become more difficult under National Labor Relations Board policies.

Decades ago, faint competition and premium prices meant manufacturers could afford high union wages and benefits. Cheap foreign goods are now pressuring U.S. companies to relocate abroad or to use non-union “right-to-work” labor (laws in several states prohibit trade unions from making membership a condition of employment).

Current U.S. law makes organizing workers difficult, says William E. Spriggs, chairman of Howard University’s economics department and a BE Board of Economists member. Spriggs says unions’ potency began weakening in 1981, when the Reagan administration had 11,000 striking air traffic controllers fired and the National Labor Relations Board started interpreting labor law in favor of employers. Labor issues are highly partisan, Spriggs says. Republicans oppose organized labor, and unions support Democrats.

The decrease in unionization will be felt by workers as issues such as pensions gain importance. “Companies are going to try to cut pension costs and healthcare costs, and workers who are not organized are going to find themselves in a very difficult position,” says Spriggs.

The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations is trying to increase black union membership in several ways, says its organizing director, Stewart Acuff. It is diversifying its pool of people who lead worksite employees in establishing a union. The AFL-CIO is also focusing efforts on regions such as the South, which have high African American populations. Finally, it is pushing public policy changes and legislation to restore the right to organize.

In Congress, the proposed Employee Free Choice Act would allow workers to organize by simple sign-up majority, force employers to negotiate a first contract, and impose heavier penalties on employers who violate workers’ rights. In court, a coalition of unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO recently defeated a Bush administration plan to strip collective bargaining rights from 700,000 civilian Department of Defense workers.

New York City public transit workers went on strike last December, intensifying nationwide awareness of union issues. The strike was led by Roger Toussaint, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100. The 38,000-member local is 70% minority. Toussaint, 49, is black.

Toussaint says transit management wants to hire subway train operators from outside instead of promoting employees up through the