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Labor Power Is the Key to Racial Equity

The next big American conversation about race should take place in a union hall.

Illustration by Joan Wong/Getty (x2)

When President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January, he’ll inherit a country that’s riven with divisions along ethnic and socio-economic lines. The central tenets of his “Build Back Better” plan suggest that his administration will confront these divisions head on and seek to ameliorate them in a variety of ways. One of the guiding principles involves fostering a stronger sense of race equity—a goal that’s as large and amorphous as it is ambitious. But there are short, sharp steps the president can take to get his arms around the task. And nothing would have more hard-dollar value than organizing the working class—all of it, Black, brown, and white. It will go a long way toward bringing people together. Or at least it would put them in the same union halls out of individual self-interest.

The single best way to begin to spur this solidarity, as well as the economic benefits that would follow, is to push the same Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which the House passed in January. There’s reason to believe Biden might be inclined to do so: He may be the first pro-union Democratic president in our adult lifetimes—or at least the first to say, in a meeting of CEOs, “I’m a union guy.” That’s the kind of thing that Obama or Clinton or Carter would have only said, if at all, on Labor Day, at a labor rally.

At some point in the next four years—yes, even if there is bad news from Georgia—the Senate could flip and open wider doors to shoring up labor rights. In the meantime, we can at least reintroduce labor law reform as a race equity measure, maybe the race equity measure, now that there are civil rights laws aplenty on the books. After all, Martin Luther King Jr., who died leading a labor strike, regarded it that way; the March on Washington in 1963 was a labor funded event, conceived in part by Bayard Rustin, who was working for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). But let us also consider a bill like PRO as a practical form of Black reparations, actually on offer; while it is not true Black reparations, it is at least a share of capital wealth. In 2018, the Center for American Progress compared the wealth of union-member and non-member households and uncovered some interesting disparities when those households were broken out along racial lines. For Black Americans, the difference is remarkable: Median union household wealth is $22,106; the non-union median is $2,371. And for Hispanic workers, the wealth effect of membership is just as great: $33,696 for union households and $3,093 for non union.

The wealth effect of union membership is a five-fold increase in wealth for every Black American who joins a union, or 486 percent. If white union members have higher wealth, and they do, that’s partly the accident of inheriting union membership in the last redoubts of organized labor, especially in the air and rail industries as well as the older building trades. But the disparity exists because union membership keeps shrinking. There is no disparity in access to union membership overall; Blacks are slightly more likely than whites to be union members. There are just very few union members.

We can think of labor law reform as a civil rights act, a form of twenty-first century Reconstruction. But it is also a form of moral Reconstruction, a way of reeducating millions in this country into the norms of citizenship. It will also go a considerably long way toward purging some of the poison of the Trump years.

After the 2020 election, there were calls in the usual places—NPR, The New York Times, the non-hallucinatory media—for a national conversation on race. Fine, I’m all for it. Let a thousand more books be published. But for my entire adult life, there has been a national conversation on race. Instead of a mere conversation, it would be preferable if whites and Blacks just went out and did something together. These national conversations are more likely to bear fruit and engender action if they take place at union halls. Americans of all races will more readily bridge divides and set old prejudices down by the side of the road if they have the opportunity to do the most important thing they can do—increase their share of not just labor income but capital income or savings—arm in arm. Together, they can lift one another out of the vicious cycle of living paycheck to paycheck. 

This pursuit of self-interest would raise the moral character of Black, brown, and white working people alike. In a way, this reflects de Tocqueville’s point about the effect of New England town meetings on their participants’ moral core. As he argued, we Americans may get involved in politics purely out of self interest, but the pursuit can end up transforming us wherever we come together to work for shared goals. We come to have a sense of public responsibility for what we have created. And at least it is enlightened altruism to make sure that race does not tear apart the much larger unions we might create.

And finally, apart from either the wealth effect or the effect on moral character, it is just impossible to think there can ever be racial equity under our colossally unfair distribution of income. Under our form of capitalism, somebody is always going to be untouchable: If not Blacks locked up in blighted, redlined urban enclaves, we’ll recruit another minority group to live at the bottom of the pile. 

Racism today is not like racism in the 1950s and 1960sand it’s not merely the product of income inequality but rather a different form of capitalism that has risen. Like everything else, racism has undergone a change as the country went from a relatively egalitarian and social democratic form of capitalism that was tainted by Jim Crow to what some describe as liberal meritocratic capitalism. There is an especially chilling description in Branko Milanovic’s Capitalism, Alone: It is an unequal, rigged meritocracyand may be on the verge of being much less liberal. 

It is this form of capitalism that explains the maddening way there is so much racial progress and so much racial backsliding. It has the effect of raising some Black Americans to dizzying heights, right up to the presidency. But it has left nonwhite working people looking up from much further down than beforemuch like white working people have to look up, too. And it has lowered the lowest economic caste. We can defund the police, but any low-income group locked up in impoverished and neglected neighborhoods will always be vulnerable to some form of violence.

The capitalism we now have is not the kind that King or Rustin or others anticipated. It was no accident that King was a kind of labor leader in his own way. The premise of the civil rights movement, at least in the 1950s and up to the time of the Vietnam war, was to bring Blacks into organized labor, which had such great power in that day. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 places great emphasis specifically on suing to get into union membership. And with respect to most unions, though not all, that strategy was successful—except for the fact that organized labor disappeared (or more precisely, it was killed by the Republican party, big business, and an accommodating judiciary). King was not naïve about this emerging world. He once gave a remarkable speech to the AFL-CIO in 1961 not just about race but also about finding new ways to counter both the automation and the outright deindustrialization that he saw coming.

Suppose we were able to flip a switch and end racism as we know it. Even a color-blind version of our form of rigged meritocracy would still leave tens of millions of Black Americans without any security or hope of economic advancement. People at the topthe top 10 percent or so, including the fraction who may be Blackhave too much financial and human capital to be dislodged. It is worse for Black Americans but bad enough for most everyone else. 

We’ve heard enough about wage increases; working-class Black Americans and the rest of our working class need capital income or wealth. The best way, historically, for American workers to save and take a greater share of capital wealth was by doing so collectively. This was the great thing about organized labor in its golden age: It forced the working class to save, in the only safe way that it can save, in pension funds, health and welfare funds, and other institutions protected by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). And then it took a larger and larger share of capital wealth. 

At the end of the post-New Deal period, the celebrated management guru, Peter Drucker, a conservative, wrote The Unseen Revolution: How Pension Fund Socialism Is Transforming America, which described how collectively bargained ERISA funds were going to transform the nature of capitalism. Indeed, ERISA was passed in anticipation of that very thing. Working people effectively owned 25 percent of the capital, and it could have gone up. That’s what King and Rustin and other civil rights leaders grasped: That the future belonged to people like Walter Reuther, who was the president of the United Auto Workers. 

This collective form of savingsa kind of forced savingsprotected the wealth of working people from both predators and their own worst impulses, and it still does to a lesser extent in a much weaker labor movement today. In that respect, the redistribution of wealth through union members is more permanent and lasting than a check written out as Black reparations, however much deserved, and far more likely to get a return over time. More importantly, the necessary precondition for Black reparations, or Black equity, is a form of capitalism in which people are less likely to be robbed by the creditors class because their own collectively bargained institutions are sturdy enough to offer protection. 

It might be difficult to understand on an emotional level, but the best way to build the wealth of working-class Black Americans is to similarly build the wealth of working-class white Americans as well. Something about that notion slightly offends our sense of justice. What kind of race equity is that? It may be too much to askat least from Americans locked up in racially isolated neighborhoods and subject to white violencefor that kind of fraternity. But we had glimpses of it once before, imperfectly, partially, and it worked. The late Congressman John Lewis joined Keith Ellison as lead sponsor of a bill that would have created a civil right to be a union member, modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Lewis, who marched with King, grasped that the civil right to join a union was a necessary complement to the civil rights enumerated in the 1964 law. 

So, yes, we can have another conversation about race. But if we want to stop talking and start doing something together, we could pass the PRO Act. Perhaps the Biden administration will take up this cause and try to deliver on the labor-based vision of  King and Rustin and the late John Lewis. Maybe instead of arguing over defunding the police, we might all agree to defund Wall Street and other plutocratic schemes and get money back into the hands of the people who truly earned it.