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.