What Are Labor’s True Colors?

Re-published from Spring 2004

Recent strategic proposals to rebuild the labor movement largely overlook the crucial need to build black-brown coalitions and labor-community ties in communities of color. It may strike some readers as odd that a discussion of problems in the labor movement should focus on ‘people of color’ and race, but the oddness of it is just the problem.  Capitalism and work have always been structured through race (and gender) in the United States.[1] The failure of labor unions to recognize this, and to support the struggles of people of color as people of color, puts them in the camp of those who argue that the American Dream is color-blind and that the only real exploitation is that of class.  From this point of view there is no reason, other than nostalgia or primordial tribalism, for minorities to emphasize race. From here it is a short step to the conclusion that black ghettos (there have been only black ghettos in the United States) are caused by the (tribal?) behavior of ghetto residents rather than by racial oppression.  Contrasting oneself to those “savages” in the ghettos, rather than identifying with them, is an important part of the construction of white identity.[2]  Nonetheless, some argue that supporting communities of color as communities of color needlessly fragments working people.  However, there are different kinds of black racial ideologies and struggles just as there are different kinds of white racial prejudice (i.e., mean-spirited and intentional racism versus inadvertent and embarrassing racial slights.)  Racial struggles that aim to transform economic conditions causing poverty, and racial movements that are open to dialogue and coalition building, should be distinguished from black racial movements that are interested in neither.

Historically, only radicals on the edge of the labor movement have taken the struggle against ghettos and slums to be central to labor’s mission.[3]  Today is not so different.  Roughly one in four African American men under 35 years are caught somewhere in the criminal justice system, while three quarters of all prisoners in the U.S. are black and Latino.[4] This is largely a consequence of the persistent unemployment of people most vulnerable to “deindustrialization,” yet the mass incarceration of black youth has not been seen as a “labor” issue.[5]  For this and other such reasons poor black communities (and most Latino communities) do not think about labor unions when they imagine a better future.  Nonetheless, this is no reason for relegating black and Latino communities to the periphery of strategies for rebuilding labor.  It is impossible, from my point of view at least, to imagine a robust labor movement without the central participation of black and Latino communities.  Yet there has been little thought given to how current strategies for rebuilding labor unions connect to the history and current reality of deep racial division among working people in the United States.  A popular idea that I address at the end of this article is that communities of color can be brought in as allies by labor-led movements to rebuild labor unions.  I doubt this.  Labor leaders may know how to support this or that black or Latino politician, but I see no evidence that many know how to build solidarity with black and Latino communities.  A recent exception to this tendency is the immigrant freedom ride, which indicates that at least some labor leaders are thinking differently.  Its organizers attempted to use the AFL-CIO’s organizational infrastructure to support a campaign focusing on important community issues, using symbolic images from the civil rights movement.  This is a promising approach. Labor unions have a better chance of growing as a part of black and Latino community movements for power, when the latter see labor unions as allies in their struggles, rather than the other way around.  This is because low-income communities of color are not, as some labor organizers arrogantly presume, unorganized blank slates.  Their participation in community civic organizations, from churches to hometown associations, is far more active than it is in labor. It should be remembered that black and Latino civic organizations exist in part because of residential segregation and their feeling of exclusion from white civic organizations.[6]   So, while many of these organizations are not explicitly political, and should not be expected to act like political parties, A seed of political awareness is built into their civic activity, that can be, and often has been, nurtured.

Beyond the Black-White Paradigm

In 2002, the foreign-born population of the United States reached an all time high of 33 million people.  This group represents over 11.5 percent of the total population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003).  The two largest states, California and Texas, already have majority nonwhite populations.    The white share of the population in the 100 largest cities declined from 52 percent to 44 percent during the 1990s.  The top five cities in the United States (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia) alone lost one million white residents in the 1990s.  Cities in five Southern states (Mobile, Columbus, Montgomery, Norfolk, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Augusta, Fort Worth), four California cities (Sacramento, San Diego, Anaheim, Riverside), Milwaukee, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Boston, and Rochester were among cities that went from majority white to majority-minority.  Nearly one in four residents in the largest U.S. cities considers themselves Hispanic, versus one in ten elsewhere in the nation.[7]  The fastest growing Latino populations are not the old destination cities such as New York or Los Angeles (although these are growing too) but Atlanta and Orlando.  Ninety-five of the top 100 cities also experienced growth in their Asian population during the 1990s.

These demographic changes are a potentially grave threat to conservative political power.  We will reach a point where many states will have nonwhite voting majorities.  It is the political majority in state governments along with Congress that are true centers of power.  As excited as minority activists sometimes get about electing mayors, city governments are not, under our Constitution, true centers of power.[8]  Cities cannot raise taxes without state approval; cities cannot dump garbage or even elect mayors without state approval.  The last time people of color were in a similar position to possibly control state governments was Reconstruction South Carolina and Mississippi.   This is a demographic turning point of potentially major significance, but it is not certain that blacks and Latinos (and Asians in some states) will use their power for progressive ends.  They may instead fight each other.

Increasingly, how and whether blacks and Latinos get to exercise power in the states will depend less on their relations with whites than on how they deal with each other.  There are at least two problems here.  One is that the way many black leaders talk about race tends to exclude other people of color, the very opposite of the global perspective on race embraced by African American movements historically.  Some Latino leaders have unfortunately amplified the narrow-mindedness and me-first attitude of black leaders.  Another problem is that leaders of color today are not preparing themselves or their followers for leadership responsibility in keeping with their increasing numbers.  They are often more willing to accept side-payments from the establishment to maintain  status quo arrangements.

I will address each of the above problems separately.  On the first point, many Latino and Asian scholars and advocates have criticized what they call the “black-white” paradigm.  They argue that scholarship on race has tended to exclude Asians and Latinos from the history of racial construction.  This is undoubtedly true.  Latino and Asian activists have further suggested that black leaders act as though African Americans were the only minorities in America.  This is also a well-earned criticism.  However, it is an error for scholars and activists to think that the history of black political thought, or the aims of popular black political movements, is actually captured in the concept of a “black-white” paradigm.  For example, Frederick Douglass did not view the black struggle in a “black-white” paradigm.  He called the 1846-1848 war against Mexico racist and expansionist, a war against freedom and the interests of working people in both countries, and an exercise of “Anglo-Saxon cupidity and love of domination.”  He noted that Mexico’s government, with “all of her barbarism and darkness” and lack of “devotion to republican principles” had nonetheless “wiped away the stain of slavery from her dominions,” but that after its conquest of Texas, “the enlightened, Christian United States had stained again what was washed.”  Douglass similarly strongly opposed efforts to restrict Chinese immigration during the 1870s, arguing that references to a “Yellow Peril” sounded much like “Black Peril.”[9] Douglass also was an outspoken supporter of Irish nationalists, whose support of abolitionists was returned in kind.

W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP and its leading publicist in the early 20th century, did not view the black struggle in a narrow black-white paradigm either.  The reason the NAACP is the association of “colored” people and not “black” or “Negro” people was, in the words of Du Bois’s preeminent biographer, “to promote the interests of dark-skinned people everywhere.”[10] Du Bois outlined his view of the relationship of black oppression with that of white workers and workers of color globally in his book Black Reconstruction:

…the plight of the white working class throughout the world today is directly traceable to Negro slavery in America, on which modern commerce and industry was founded, and which persisted to threaten free labor until it was partially overthrown in 1863.  The resulting color caste founded and retained by capitalism was adopted, forwarded and approved by white labor, and resulted in subordination of colored labor to white profits the world over.  Thus the majority of the world’s laborers, by the insistence of white labor, became the basis of a system of industry which ruined democracy and showed its perfect fruit in World War and Depression.  And this book seeks to tell that story.

Du Bois’s perspective was hardly a ‘black-white’ paradigm.  As Robin Kelley describes in his book Freedom Dreams, black activists in the 1950s maintained global perspective on their struggle.  They were deeply inspired by anticolonial movements in the Third World and thought of them as allies.  Malcolm X, comparing Vietnamese anticolonial struggle with the Kenyan Mau Mau rebellion in 1954, supported an allegiance of the African American struggle with anticolonial independence movements worldwide.  Similarly, the African American civil rights movement learned about nonviolent methods of struggle from their close observation and solidarity with the Indian movement against British colonialism.  The movement, including SNCC and Rev. Martin Luther King, strongly opposed the Vietnam war, in sympathy with Vietnamese peasants.  Huey Newton, the Black Panther leader, argued in the late 1960s that black Americans should view their struggle as part of a world revolution because, he emphasized, there were no longer national economies and national corporations but a worldwide economy.[11]

Given a rich history of black support for struggling peoples around the globe, and the black movements’ historical understanding of their own struggle as connected to people worldwide, we have to question how a narrowly domestic and ethnically bounded notion of black politics took hold.  It came after the success of the civil rights movement in passing the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.  With the ascension of African Americans into elected offices, and their success in securing some federal and foundation funds for fighting black poverty, suddenly there was turf to protect.  Quite a few black elected officials, and many Latino elected officials, learned from white conservatives that an easy way to stay in office was to mobilize the suspicions and prejudices that divide whites, blacks, and Latinos.  Many spread the idea that simply getting them elected was the key to solving black community problems.  It was easier to do this than to take on the challenge of eliminating poverty jobs and unemployment.  Instead of the election of black officials leading to an increasingly broad multiracial political mobilization of poor people, as the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movements envisioned, black leaders frequently represented their own election as mayor, Congressman, or union local president as the grand victory and end of the journey for all black people.  Symbolic representation thus replaced substance.  For example, some leading black organizations and leaders have proclaimed that President Bush’s appointment of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice—leading supporters of a foreign policy nearly universally opposed in the developing world—is a strong indicator of black progress.  Blacks who challenge this notion of civil rights progress are sometimes accused of trying to divide black people so that whites can take over, or so that Latinos can take over.  Whites who challenge this view are easily dismissed as racists.  Even so, it is preposterous to think that black people fought the civil rights movement to get 8,000 blacks jobs as elected officials, or to put a black face on imperial foreign policy.  They had much more in mind.

African Americans are today a demoralized and demobilized people, alienated from politics.[12]  They are a people who sacrificed a lot for the right to vote but now mostly do not vote because they see no leadership worth voting for.  Their anguish was evident seven years ago when a million black men marched on Washington, the biggest black demonstration in history by a factor of four.  The march had no political agenda, no list of demands; it was a gathering of people who knew they were in trouble and were desperate to gain a sense of purpose and direction.  What did they get?  The keynote speaker gave them a lecture on numerology!  The March on Washington was a dispiriting loss of political opportunity, and a step backward in recognizing the importance of black women’s struggles in changing U.S. society.  But this was not just Minister Louis Farrakhan’s fault.  Farrakhan was one of the few black leaders attempting to organize anything, accounting for the massive turnout.  Many black leaders seemed to have forgotten that the majority of black people have dead-end jobs, and that millions of black people are wandering in and out of welfare and prison.

The ‘black-white’ paradigm remains acceptable to so many black leaders because the only good reason to undertake the difficult work of building strong cross-racial, cross-ethnic political ties is to organize a broad political movementand few of them are interested in building a movement.  The black leaders who rebuff unity efforts with Latinos and Asians for the most part are not trying to organize black people either.  It does not take much insight to recognize that doing something about lack of health care, prisons, affordable housing, and the collapse of public schooling in America requires building broad solidarity among the people who most suffer these problems.

Unfortunately, black leaders are not alone.  I have not seen many Latino leaders, including critics of the ‘black-white’ paradigm, criticizing Latino anti-black racism, or encouraging Latinos to form coalitions with black people.  A lot of Latino leaders have cheered the U.S. Census 2000 findings of a burgeoning Latino population with rhetoric sounding a lot like, “Get back blacks, I’m going to be a big shot now!”  While I believe that the ‘black-white’ paradigm has contributed to this reaction, there is no cause for sanctimony on the part of its critics.

Black and Latino communities are politically divided.  Antonio Villaraigosa, a very progressive pro-labor Latino mayoral candidate in Los Angeles lost when large numbers of black leaders supported his middle-of-the-road opponent.  A lot of black leaders were subsequently upset when the victor, James Hahn, dismissed the city’s black police chief.  But why were they surprised?  Hahn accused Villaraigosa of being soft on crime, and ran Willie Horton type ads with an image of Villaraigosa surrounded by drug paraphernalia.  Latino communities have the same basic problems with the Los Angeles police as African Americans, yet many African American leaders choose to align themselves with a candidate actively appealing to whites’ racial stereotypes.  Where is the black community’s political future in California?  Is it with Latinos who also need affordable housing, good jobs, good schools, healthcare, and need help getting it?  Or is it with people who have all those things and do not want to share them?

Labor unions could play an important role in steering the demographic transition underway in the U.S. towards greater inter-group solidarity and a substantive focus on the poor.

To play such a role, labor cannot constitute itself as a separate interest apart from black and Latino communities.  By constituting a ‘separate interest,’ I refer to the decisions of some unions to endorse President Bush in the last presidential election and New York’s conservative Governor George Pataki in 2002.  Union leaders defend such actions as responsible political leadership on behalf of their members who need material gains.  Still, one must ask, where do such endorsements fit in an overall political strategy for power?  I am not one to argue that unions should never make deals on behalf of their members.  But if unions think that it is in their strategic interest to be in coalition with poor communities of color, they risk losing their trust by making separate deals excluding the participation of their community partners.   Further, if Bush or Pataki promise deals for certain unions, the union should take the extra step of making sure that they will not finance it by cutting services and benefits from the communities where its workers live or from workers in a different sector.

Labor unions should go out of their way to cultivate solidarity between blacks and Latinos in and outside of the union.  It does not help matters when labor leaders encourage its black members to support a Latino candidate in one election, but then encourages Latino members to oppose an equally progressive black candidate in another election.   Latino candidates have also been burned in this way.  This means that labor leaders interested in long-term labor-community cooperation should carefully consider whether their support for a candidate (or policy) will build or undermine black–Latino political unity.    Responsible political leadership in these times goes beyond making ghetto life a little easier for the residents of a particularly strong voting district, or for a handful of workers in a local union; it means building a broad coalition for real power–the power to move entire states towards eliminating ghettos and slum wages.

Reparations: A Compelling Labor Issue

Race continues to play a major role in structuring U.S. society. Whites in the South are poorer than whites elsewhere in the country because slavery undermined their wages, Jim Crow kept unions out, and wages for all workers suffered as a consequence.  But this is the tip of the iceberg.  When the Reconstruction governments were violently overthrown in the 1870s, and the Confederates regained control of the South, they installed a racial dictatorship.  Reactionary Southern congressman from plantation districts had no political competition and tended to have long stays in Congress.   Because Congress was a more important branch of government {prior to} Until World War II—when the nuclear bomb strengthened the presidency—and because Congress allocated power according to seniority, Southern representatives dominated both Congress and national legislation through WW II.  This means that {when the} modern U.S. corporation, labor laws, immigration policies, foreign policy, and social welfare structures were {took shape, the United States was} crafted largely by Southern Congressional anti-democrats.  This is a major reason why America did not become a social democracy.  {The suppression of democracy in the South under Jim Crow has hurt working and poor families across America, not just black people.}  During Florida’s last presidential election, it was the suppression of black voters{–from voters eliminated through felony disenfranchisement laws to registration irregularities–} that swung the presidential election for George Bush.  The South is still crucial to conservative political power.

Building a progressive multi-racial labor-community movement in the South would clearly deliver a powerful blow to racial division in the United States.  There appear to be two strands of thought about how to do this.  One approach is organizing around ‘bread and butter’ issues while avoiding racially divisive issues.  In this view, after trust is built up through personal ties established during ‘bread and butter’ struggles, racial issues can gradually be addressed.  Another approach is organizing black and Latino communities around whatever issues come up, racial or not, and imploring whites to join a self-consciously anti-racist movement from the beginning.  I lean towards the latter.  The first reason is that there are lots of black community-based organizations and activists in the South that already deal with racial issues, and who are likely to be wary of organizations working in black communities who suppress racial issues by arguing that it alienates whites.  A second reason is that avoiding race robs the movement, of a deeply compelling moral vision.  For example, the recent black movement for reparations owed for slavery could be a labor-black movement.  It is striking, in fact, that in the 21st century the U.S. labor movement still cannot grab hold of the slavery issue.  What greater labor exploitation has ever existed in America than the kidnapping of tens of millions of Africans, the slaughter of many millions of them on the passage across the ocean, the forced labor of these kidnapped slaves for 300 years, and the systematic rape of slave women to breed more slave children who could be sold at auctions for more profit?  How is it that a labor movement that wants to unite people around workers’ material interests cannot not be in the forefront of a movement that is demanding justice and recognition for such shameful treatment of working people–dead or alive?

The model of the old labor movement, as Du Bois pointed out, was that labor unions would protect organized workers while giving employers license to super-exploit workers of color in the United States and the developing world.  That model is losing its utility for workers as global capital breaks down the old geographic distinctions.  Low-income service workers in the United States increasingly are the ‘Third World’ (and Eastern European) workers, transplanted here.  They are the super-exploited workforce of color.  They are the degraded women laborers.  Labor unions that are organizing these workers are doing so at the bottom of the workforce.  There is no group beneath them to pay for a sweetheart deal for other workers.  If workers try to organize Wal-Mart in one place, it shuts down and moves somewhere else where workers are less organized.  If a government official offers a union a sweetheart deal in the healthcare sector, they are likely to pay for it by cutting funds for other services—such as from the schools of the healthcare workers’ children.  If an official offers a sweetheart deal in education, chances are they are financing it by cutting poor peoples’ health insurance.  To make progress in this situation, labor more than ever needs a strategy for organizing that does not have workers in different sectors working at cross purposes, and does not leave any worker unprotected and cut out of deals.  If not, those who are excluded will quickly become prey for new rounds of exploitation and undermining of the more organized and secure sections of the labor force.

Labor needs bold and radical thinking about how to represent economic justice.  This is what makes reparations a good labor issue.  The issue is not about writing individual checks to descendants of slaves.  The U.S. treasury could not repay blacks for their labor even it wanted to.  What the reparations demand does is begin to expose the immorality of the entire economic structure in the United States at its foundation.    

Immigrant Rights

There are other articles in this volume devoted to labors’ work on immigrant rights, and I will not belabor the issue.  But I would be remiss to highlight justice for African Americans while ignoring the plight of low-income immigrant workers.  An issue that deserves particular attention is immigrant voting.  From the Colonial Era until the 1920s, immigrants voted in state and local elections in many states.  Since then, the vast majority of immigrants in the United States have been prohibited from voting by state restrictions imposed a century ago to weaken labor and community movements by Southern and Eastern European immigrants.  Immigrants now pay taxes and serve in the military yet they have no voice in politics.  It is a major mistake to think that immigrants are the only victims of their disenfranchisement.  Immigrants tend live in cities and inner ring suburbs with other poor people.  Because noncitizen immigrants cannot vote in state elections, all poor people in urban areas lose voting power.  Voters in wealthy suburban areas, with fewer immigrants gain disproportionate power in state budget contests.  The immigrant vote could aide low-income citizens in poor urban communities to win state and local political contests, and to fund needed services in their neighborhoods.

The issue of voting rights for immigrant taxpayers usually elicits the same response most people give to the black reparations issue.  It is too hard to sell politically; it is too controversial.  However, this is largely because the labor movement is decades late in fighting for these issues.  These will be uphill battles, but they would be the right battles, announcing a deep labor commitment to democracy and fairness for America’s most downtrodden people.  Perhaps this matters more than quick victories.  Moreover, immigrants are a large part of the bottom of the labor market, where labor hopes to establish a good reputation and grow.  Immigrants will no doubt bear in mind who supports their incorporation and who does not when defining their allegiances.

Models for Community Organizing

There have been spirited debates in this journal about how labor unions should reorganize.  I have little expertise to offer on this score; however, the debate seems to be too narrowly cast.  If organizing in low-income communities of color is seen as strategic for labor, as I argue it should be, then attention needs to put on organizing problems in those communities as well.  Building community-based unions, or community unionism, is an interesting approach.  However, there are community-based organizations (CBOs) in local areas struggling to survive, and adding a new labor-backed organization to compete for dues and loyalty may not always be well received.  Labor unions might consider, alternatively or conjunctively, supporting existing CBOs while convincing them to support labor initiatives.

Helping CBOs to become financially independent and self-sustaining is also the most important thing labor could do to win strong black community support (at least) and overcome a pervasive distrust of labor unions built over generations.  This is an entirely different approach than offering CBOs donations in exchange for their help in a campaign.  Rather, it is helping CBOs solve their structural problems in order to become strong institutions, just like unions are trying to be stronger institutions themselves.  It is also providing a way for CBOs to become independent political voices.

The area where labor unions can be of most help to CBOs  is in transferring their economic bargaining skills honed in production relations to consumer relations in communities.  The reasons are twofold: CBOs need economic liberation to free them up to pursue labor and political organizing, and communities are thoroughly disorganized as consumers.  CBOs need “liberation” because they are typically non-profits dependent on government or private foundation funding.  These are patronage relationships,  and the need to keep patrons happy explains why, despite the development of what is virtually a community building industry providing locally based social services and affordable housing, political participation in the low-income communities of color they serve has declined to abysmal levels.

One way to break free of this dependency  would be  to utilize their social networks and organizations in communities as the starting point for establishing cooperative purchasing units for utilities that all communities need.  Community bargaining units could negotiate prices and exact rents in intensively competitive telephone, internet, and energy markets.  There are already hundreds of cooperatives around the country that do this, but many are small and rural.  Dense urban populations are prime territory for consumer organizing, and they often have pre-existing organizational (and social capital) networks established in churches and CBOs.  There are also large concentrations of union members in many different kinds of communities, although these “densities” are seldom calculated, that could be supported by unions in their role as community leaders and participants.  As in labor organizing, the bigger the bargaining unit, the better.

There are literally thousands of cooperatives and community-owned enterprises in the United States.[13]  The vast majority are not involved in politics, however, some are.  Cooperatives were active in lobbying Congress to protect credit unions when conservatives targeted them for extinction a few years ago.  However, I am not arguing that a politicized cooperative movement already exists.  I am suggesting that labor unions are well-positioned to help develop such a movement.  This is because of the concentrations of union members residing in certain urban neighborhoods, the potential of labor-backed capital investments to support community economic investments, and the infrastructure of community development corporations and finance institutions that can partner with labor unions.

Inherent in this approach, is respect and a commitment to labor’s community partners.  This approach begins to deal with the structural inequalities between white and minority-led movements—labor and community respectively—and carries more weight than a thousand apologies or whipping sessions about racial inequality.  Lastly, this approach provides an organizational  mechanism for building ties within and across urban communities, as well as between urban/suburban communities with significant labor concentrations.  The powerful urban community movements of the 1960s and early 1970s could not sustain themselves financially, and they fell into the trap of patron-client relationships.  If they can climb out of that trap, I think that labor unions will have trouble keeping up with the pace of their organizing initiatives, and not the other way around.


[1] Jones, 1998. 
[2] For example, police harassment of blacks who were found “out of place” in predominantly white neighborhoods is common.  Sociologist Joe Feagin wrote that in his interviews of black men, many reported aversive reactions from whites when they walk down the street.  Feagin also noted that race continues to play a large role in white (’s) self-concepts, including the concept of a good family.  He quoted a white father and business person who responded to a hypothetical question about an adult child dating a black person, “I’d be sick to my stomach.  I would feel like, that I failed along the way…I’d feel like I probably failed as a father.”
Gerstle, 2001. 

[4] Mauer 1999. 
[5] As Zygmunt Bauman noted, the urban poor are not seen as a political agent, “…poverty is no longer associated with organized labor.  It has become much less romantic and politically interesting.  It is now a suffering that does not entail redemption but calls for more bureaucracy–if heeded– this call would only strengthen the oppressive grip of the capitalist state.” Wilson 1996; James H. Johnson 2000. 
[6] Williams 2002. 
[7] Alan Berube, “Racial and Ethnic Change in the Nation’s Largest Cities,” in Redefining Urban and Suburban America, edited by Bruce Katz and Robert E. Lang, (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2003), p. 140. 
[8] Frug 1999, p. 140. 
[9] Waldo E. Martin 1984, p. 216-218.  
[10] Lewis 1993, p. 405. 
[11] Brown 1992. 
[12] Gilliam and Kaufman, 1998. 
[13] For an example of a community organizing approach to community enterprise, see the Market Creek project in San Diego, “http://marketcreek.com”.

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