For any people to be able to exercise their rights effectively, they must have certain preconditions—a job, physical safety, education, adequate housing and medical care. Without those preconditions, those formal rights are a dead letter. They can’t be exercised. Labor unions have done more to provide those conditions for African Americans than any other social institution in the United States.
According to John Schmitt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a higher percentage of African American workers (16.2 percent) belong to unions than the rest of the population (13.5 percent) for good reason. Unions serve the African American community well. It is true that unions, like the rest of American society, delayed opening their doors to African Americans for too long, but enormous progress has been made since it happened.
Union membership benefits both male and female African Americans. Black men earn more if they are in a union ($18.15 per hour) as opposed to only $13.50 for nonunion men. Unionized African American men are more likely to have health insurance (76.7 percent) than nonunion black men (65 percent). The same holds true for health insurance and pension coverage.
Black women in unions earn more ($17.20 an hour) than nonunion black women ($12.00),and are much more likely to have health care coverage and a pension.
For African American workers, the union advantage with respect to health insurance and pension coverage remains large, even after considering differences in workers’ characteristics. Unionized African American workers are about 16 percentage points more likely to have health insurance and about 19 percentage points more likely to have a pension than nonunion workers.
Even in low wage occupations, African Americans in unions earn more than nonunion African American workers in the same occupations and are more likely to have health insurance and a pension plan.
But African American workers also benefit the union movement. Dr. Everett Freeman, president of Albany State University in Albany, Ga., concluded in a study of blacks in leadership positions that there are more African Americans in leadership positions in labor unions than in any other social institution in America, except the black church.
That’s why the Employee Free Choice Act
is important for African American workers. Union membership has been a passageway to the middle class for generations of African American workers. But the recession of the past decade has caused a depression in the black community. According to a 2007 study, 55 percent of the union jobs lost in 2004 were held by black workers, and African American women accounted for 70 percent of the union jobs lost by women in 2004.
Between 1983 and 2006, the percentage of African Americans represented by unions fell from 31.7 percent of all black workers to 16 percent, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Yet, African Americans still are among the most likely to join unions. If the freedom to join unions is increased, African Americans, like many other struggling American workers, will be able to increase their union membership and make even greater economic strides in the future
Edgar Moore is an instructor at the University of Nebraska—Omaha’s William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies.