Workin' Man Blues

|

Over at The Nation's political blog, John Nichols reports on efforts by AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka to get steelworkers and other union members to throw their support behind a black presidential candidate:

Trumka knew that the steelworkers had backed John Edwards for this year's Democratic presidential nomination—and that the union had only endorsed Obama when Edwards finally came around. He understood that a part of his job was to get a union that is especially strong in the battleground states of Ohio and Pennsylvania excited about a candidate who must win those states.

Trumka knew, as well, that there are steelworkers—and autoworkers and machinists and others—who are committed to the labor movement but cautious about backing a person of color for president. So the Pennsylvania populist went to the heart of the matter—challenging ignorance and fear and calling on the House of Labor to identify and reject the politics of race in order to elect an ally to the presidency.

Whole thing here.

Left unexamined is the American labor movement's long, ugly history of racism and discrimination, one that older left-leaning historians tried their best to downplay. But the problem historically wasn't just racist attitudes among white workers, it was the monopoly bargaining powers that the government granted to racist unions, allowing them to exclude blacks and other unwelcome groups from participating in the only game in town. For instance, under the collective bargaining practices established by the National Recovery Administration (which went into effect in 1933 as part of Franklin Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act), a union representing a majority of employees was granted exclusive representation over all employees. White-controlled unions, in other words, were given a state-sanctioned monopoly, one that forbid competition from unions representing a minority of workers. Here's something I wrote about the practice in 2004:

While such compulsory unionism is routinely celebrated as a milestone for the American worker, many African Americans saw things differently. The NAACP's publication The Crisis, for example, decried the monopoly powers granted to racist unions by the NRA, noting in 1934 that "union labor strategy seems to be to obtain the right to bargain with the employees as the sole representative of labor, and then close the union to black workers." Members of the black press had something of a field day attacking the NRA, rechristening it the "Negro Removal Act," "Negroes Robbed Again," "Negro Run Around," and "No Roosevelt Again."

The Supreme Court unanimously struck the NRA down in 1935, but the collective bargaining provisions were reinstated a few months later via the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, after its sponsor, Sen. Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.). And the Wagner Act, it's worth pointing out, originally contained a clause forbidding discrimination against African Americans, but it was removed at the behest of the AFL.

Needless to say, this is some of the necessary background you don't hear about when the pundits question Obama's ability to reach "working class" voters.

NEXT: "It Is Unclear Why He Did That"

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Another piece of “pro-labor” legislation with racist origins is the Davis-Bacon Act.

    Kevin

  2. It’s good to see there’s a political party in the United States that works to curtail racism among its members, as opposed to exploiting it.

  3. Racist democrat Party voters are gonna win this election for McCain.

  4. Stupid squirrels.

  5. And the Wagner Act, its worth pointing out, originally contained a clause forbidding discrimination against African Americans, but it was removed at the behest of the AFL.

    I did not know that, though the second part is not exactly shocking.

    Well, weekends are good and racism is bad, but I’ll take what I can get.

  6. Whoops, I meant Democrat Party Voters
    Shift key on my thinkpad isn’t as sensitive as on my old fujitsu

  7. Racist democrat Party voters are gonna win this election for McCain.

    You mean like how they won the election for Hillary?

    Oh, look, something else other than John McCain or anything he stands for that is going to win the election for the Republicans.

    Funny how the deciding factor the election changes every week, but never has anything to do with the Republican candidate, or what he stands for.

    The Republicans are so f*cked this year.

  8. It’s good to see there’s a political party in the United States that works to curtail racism among its members, as opposed to exploiting it.

    What political party does Al Sharpton belong to again?

  9. The one that works to curtail racism among its members, of course: the Democratic Party.

    It’s pretty easy to keep this stuff straight, if you don’t bend over backwards to avoid knowing it.

  10. So the Pennsylvania populist went to the heart of the matter-challenging ignorance and fear

    Did he go on to clarify that the unions could still be ignorant and fearful of foreigners, just not blacks anymore? Well, I suppose that’s progress.

  11. The problem with racist unions applies only when they make the hiring decision rather than the employer. And the history of discrimination is even longer and uglier with private business owners, whether refusing to provide service, or underpaying women and minorities because the market allows them to get away with it (know of any companies that encourage employees to discuss their compensation among themselves?). MLK recognized this with his strong support of unions.

  12. Why did you change your name to Republicans joe?

  13. Brian Courts,

    The labor movement is one of the strongest advocates for liberalizing immigration. The AFL-CIO, UNITE/HERE, AFSCME, and SEIU unions actually helped to organize the big immigration rallies year.

    I realize your political ideology tells you that they must be opposed to immigrants; and yet, all you have to do is visit their web sites and click on the “immigration” link in their issues pages, which you’ve obviously never bothered to do, to find out what their actual positions are.

  14. The squirrels changed it for me, SIV.

  15. Another reason to beat down on unions . . .

  16. joe,

    I was talking about their general and historic support of protectionism, not their fear of immigrants.

    Nonetheless, if a populist like Trumka (hardly a union critic) recognizes that racism is enough of an issue that he needs to address it, then I doubt I’d be totally surprised to learn that many of the rank and file might have a likewise different view of immigrants than the official union website would care to portray.

    Hey, maybe you should email Trumka that link so he can be reassured that the union is not a supporter of racism either, whatever his political ideology might tell him.

  17. Well, Brian, since opposition to immigration is closely tied to fear of foreigners, while protectionism is not, you can see where my confusion comes from.

    If you’re going to use language like ignorant and fearful of foreigners, you need to make sure you’re talking about people’s intentions and beliefs, and some three-steps-removed argument about disparate impacts. Otherwise, all you’re doing is race-baiting.

  18. Nonetheless, if a populist like Trumka (hardly a union critic) recognizes that racism is enough of an issue that he needs to address it, then I doubt I’d be totally surprised to learn that many of the rank and file might have a likewise different view of immigrants than the official union website would care to portray.

    So, along with the Democratic Party, we can also count the large unions as institutions that actively work to root out and refute racism among their members.

    I can live with that. Better than pandering to it.

    SCARY BLACK CHURCH!!! MICHELLE OBAMA WANTS TO KILL YOUR CHILDREN!!!

  19. Both exploit minority fears to get votes, with little actual reward. Don’t forget that one.

  20. Fwiw, joe, I thought your joke name was appropriate @2:00

    Needless to say, this is some of the necessary background you don’t hear about when the pundits question Obama’s ability to reach “working class” voters.

    Maybe, but your examples are from the 1930’s This is no different than, in fact no better than, the constant dredging up of fuckin vietnam for the last 3 election cycles.

  21. joe, thanks for reminding me that Democrats are these perfect, wonderful angels while Republicans are terrible monsters. I mean, it would be crazy to think otherwise, right?

  22. joe, that’s a bold claim, that protectionism isn’t closely tied to fear of foreigners. What to make of all those references to some guy in India taking your job? To “Clinton, D-Punjab”? The outrage when a factory is moved from Ohio to Mexico is a lot greater than when the factory is moved to Arizona.

  23. Let me rephrase my last sentence. I’m fuckin sick and tired of everything being either vietnam or ww2. Going back to the depression would piss me off even more; it’s a totally different landscape now.

  24. I realize your political ideology tells you that they must be opposed to immigrants; and yet, all you have to do is visit their web sites and click on the “immigration” link in their issues pages, which you’ve obviously never bothered to do, to find out what their actual positions are.

    That is, what their actual positions are supposed to be. Actually talking to them will probably give you a very different impression.

  25. *(“Them” meaning, union members. Not websites. Please don’t try to talk to union websites.)

  26. Well, Brian, since opposition to immigration is closely tied to fear of foreigners, while protectionism is not

    Well, I’m not sure why you’re so sure that’s the case. Either could be explained by simple fear of losing jobs to someone else, whether inside or outside the country. Ultimately it is probably a self-reinforcing type of behavior/belief. Breeding mistrust or fearfulness might be necessary (or at least helpful) to rationalize why you deserve something more than someone of a different color or birthplace.

    Anyway, why would the AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer believe that “ignorance and fear” explains the union’s problem with race? Maybe it too is was just an economic issue of not wanting to lose jobs to another similarly arbitrary category of people?

  27. Episiarch,

    You can have whatever feelings you want. When you make factually incorrect statements to try to back those feelings up, people are going to refute you.

    I trust if you had any actual rebuttals to anything I wrote, rather than your usual yammerings about angels, we’d have seen them.

  28. Did he go on to clarify that the unions could still be ignorant and fearful of foreigners, just not blacks anymore? Well, I suppose that’s progress.

    I think they stopped having Honda smashing parties at various events, but I hear it is not a bright idea to park a foreign-badged car (no matter where it’s made) at a union-controlled US auto plant.

    Being uniters sure looks strange sometimes.

  29. lurker usually,

    What to make of all those references to some guy in India taking your job? To “Clinton, D-Punjab”?

    Those are expressions of economic insecurity. Do you think people LIKE having the places they work close down?

    Disagree with such an economic position all you want, it isn’t the same thing as the palpable fear of furrners that dominates anti-immigration politics.

    There have been examples of protectionist politicians and movements that have sought to play up xenophobia: from the right. Pat Buchanan on Lou Dobbs come to mind.

  30. Or, zach, you could actually look at what they’ve done. You could read up on their press releases, about their involvment in immigrants’ rights movmements, and their involvement in marches. You could read about the lobbying they did in support of the immigration reform bill. You could even look up some old issues of their newsletters – I know AFSCME puts out special immigration issues once in a while.

    Or you could, you know, just assume what you think they would probably say, based on what you figger union guys are probably like.

  31. Why did you change your name to Republicans joe?

    Because he is the smartest person on this board, of course.

  32. joe,
    You know, when you post under a different name to make it seem like more agree with you, YOU DON’T LEAVE A &^%$ING EMAIL LINK TO SHOW WHO POSTED IT. If anyone wonders what I’m talking about, just click “Republicans” on the posts bearing the name.

  33. Brian Courts,

    Well, I’m not sure why you’re so sure that’s the case. Because I’ve actually read up on the politics here, and know that your perfectly-logical explanation fails to accurately explain reality.

    In the real world, the unions are pro-immigrant, and have put a great deal of money and effort into that project, while also being protectionist. Which goes a pretty long way towards demonstrating that you are quite simply wrong about the two issues being linked in the minds of the unions. When you have a political faction that is actively working to increase immigration and expand the rights of immigrants, while also arguing for protectionist measures, it’s more than a bit of a stretch to claim that the latter positions stems from a fear of foreigners.

  34. economist,

    When you do that, you also don’t write “whoops, that was me” in subsequent messages.

    Deep breaths, son. Maybe a cold clothe on the back of your neck.

  35. economist | July 3, 2008, 3:22pm | #
    joe,
    You know, when you post under a different name to make it seem like more agree with you, YOU DON’T LEAVE A &^%$ING EMAIL LINK TO SHOW WHO POSTED IT. If anyone wonders what I’m talking about, just click “Republicans” on the posts bearing the name.

    Bit slow, aren’t you? I mean, I understand not taking the time to understand whats going on in a thread, they get long, but in that case, don’t post about it.

  36. economist,

    Please, don’t criticize the master of H&R&EveryThingElse. He knows more than all of us. Some sort of gremlin must have changed his handle a few times, because he would never type that in himself.

    None of us would be brilliant enough to make the gremlins mad and attack us. Count our blessings.

  37. See, economist, like this:

    Republicans | July 3, 2008, 1:28pm | #

    “primary motivation” and “much of” are as unnecessarily histrionic as the exclaimation point itself, SIV.
    joe | July 3, 2008, 1:32pm | #

    whoops, my bad. That was me.

    I’ve been doing it all day; the damn server squirrels keep changing my joke name back.

    Lemme give you a heads up, son; I’m a liberal, who comes onto the H&R blog to argue politics. The whole “more people agreeing with you” thing isn’t really something I’m terribly interested in. Some have managed to figure this out by themselves.

  38. See?

  39. joe,
    Given the number of times that I’ve heard protectionist claims couched in terms of protecting ourselves from the perfidious Chinese, I’m thinking xenophobia plays quite a large part in protectionism. I think that it’s become more popular with Democrats now, because it gives them many of the same benefits as anti-immigration policies in terms of pandering to angry white populists that they can’t afford to lose, while not pissing off immigrants as much as immigration restrictions. Of course, it would be foolish to ignore other factors at work, such as the fact that foreign competition has helped to break the power of unions, but I felt it necessary to refute your “point” about how protectionism isn’t about xenophobia.

    And Lou Dobbs isn’t on the right. He’s an equal opportunity populist douchebag.

  40. And Lou Dobbs isn’t on the right. He’s an equal opportunity populist douchebag.

    You didn’t fall for that false flag pin trick either, huh?

  41. economist,

    Given the number of times that I’ve heard protectionist claims couched in terms of protecting ourselves from the perfidious Chinese, I’m thinking xenophobia plays quite a large part in protectionism.

    As I wrote above, I’ve certainly seen protectionist politics that indulged in covert and not-so-covert racism. The hysteria about Japan in the 80s comes to mind.

    But it’s tough to argue that unions are engaging in protectionist politics in an effort to gain the support of white guys who don’t like foreigners, while putting so much more money and effort into pro-immigration politics that said white guys despise – especially when there is an alternate explaination (economic insecurity) which is both the raison d’etre of unions, and doesn’t require one to hold two contradictory ideas in one’s head at the same time.

  42. Remember Pat Buchanan on John McLaughlin’s show?

    “We need to tell them, ‘You no buy our cah, we no buy your lice.'”

  43. joe and J,
    Gee, I’m sorry I missed one post (2:14 post)

  44. classwarrior,
    That’s right, it’s all the evil corporashunz’s fault!

  45. When you have a political faction that is actively working to increase immigration and expand the rights of immigrants, while also arguing for protectionist measures, it’s more than a bit of a stretch to claim that the latter positions stems from a fear of foreigners.

    Unions take pro-immigrant stances for two reasons. First, they want immigrants to be of legal status to make it more difficult for them to undercut union labor. That does not necessarily mean they want more immigration — just that what immigration there is should be legal. Second, since immigrants fill the lower end jobs where union organization is more relevant, but which the US is evolving away from, unions see immigration as a way to restore their former power and glory.

    As for protectionism, I think it is completely counterproductive to think that it stems from feelings of racism or xenophobia. Rather, protectionism is more commonly the root discriminatory behavior. People invite or seek any socially acceptable way to decrease the population competing with them in the belief that it will make them better off. That is all protectionism is. Racism, xenophobia, or nationalism may derive from protectionism and give further excuses for it, but protectionism is the core motivation.

    It is therefore completely consistent for unions to be both pro-immigrant and pro-protectionism. The unions’ self interest is what matters in both cases.

  46. Mildly on topic anecdote.

    Back in the early 90s when Orange County, Florida was planning a new courthouse Commissioner Mable Butler enraged her party by voting to allow non-union firms to bid on the job.

    Her reason. She said that she wanted the people she represented to have a chance to get hired to work on the project.

  47. As an engineer working in a power plant where most labor is unionized, I deal on a daily basis with members of various unionized crafts: Boilermakers, Pipefitters, Electricians, Ironworkers, etc. I have never met such a set of people in which racism is so endemic, subtle, and insidious. White and black union members work together well but they never appear to really like each other. Whites look down on blacks, and they both hate Mexicans.

    It’s really depressing sometimes.

  48. I agree with MikeP.

    But, being joe, I have a minor quibble.

    First, they want immigrants to be of legal status to make it more difficult for them to undercut union labor.

    That’s not quite right. Legalization of Paperwork-deprived America-joiners doesn’t do anything to make it more difficult for an immigrant to offer to work for $7.50/hr. What it does is make it easier for them to find and work at jobs that pay better, so the employers looking to under-cut union labor will have more difficulty doing so.

    This would be better phrased as “…to make it more difficult for employers to undercut union labor.”

    Immigration restrictions put the government’s boot on the neck of immigrants, so that employers can exploit them more easily, which can drive down wages below what would occur under market conditions. Removing this boot is pro-market, as well as being pro-worker, pro-union, and pro-immigrant.

  49. joe says: “Legalization of Paperwork-deprived America-joiners”..

    Fuck me, you do have a sense of humor. I was beginning to wonder. Joe: not a dalek.

  50. Big Labor’s opposition to the free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama are likely grounded in racism, too. Obambi is all for it. You notice he isn’t flipflopping on that one, that’s one bone he’s going throw to the racist unions to keep their endorsements.

  51. joe says: “Those are expressions of economic insecurity. Do you think people LIKE having the places they work close down?”

    Ah yes. They’re bitter, so they’re clinging to xenophobia. Got it.

  52. The Republicans are so f*cked this year.

    Not so fast. While the Republicans are pretty much powerless to do anything to win, I can still see the Democrats in their sense of self-confidence doing something extremely stupid at the last minute.

  53. When I shop for a car I want an American made one and research where it was made. I will not buy a car made in Michigan and I hope that socialist state completely collapses. I look for vehicles made in the south.

    The ideal situation is a non-union southern factory.

  54. “It’s good to see there’s a political party in the United States that works to curtail racism among its members, as opposed to exploiting it.”

    That’s a nice description of the Republican party. The democrats keep promoting the policies (multi-culturism, unionization, welfare, affirmative action) that promote and encourage racism and divisions in the nation. Just ask Jesse Jackson, rev.Wright, Al Sharpton and many other democratic operatives.

  55. I love how Boss Trumka assumes his members are racists, or are at least, uh, “cautious about backing a person of color for president.” Screw you, Trumka. You can give Obama my dues, but he can’t have my vote.

    There are a million reasons to oppose Obama’s asinine candidacy for president and his race isn’t even one of them.

  56. I love it when people who spend their days shouting SCARY BLACK CHURCH! SCARY BLACK CHURCH! decide to turn around and explain who THE REAL RACISTS are.

    I’m looking at you, Hyphenated. Oh my goodness, the Democrats support multiculturalism and desegregation efforts! That’s because they hate white people! (Or is it black people? I can never keep these arguments straight, because you always see the same policies pointed to as evidence that they hate white people AND black people.)

  57. Brando L.,

    Assume, nothing. Perhaps Mr. Lunka, unlike yourself, bothered to look at the exist polling from places like West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania, and noticed 30% of Hillary voters saying that race was a factor in their votes.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.