Those of us seeking to rectify societal wrongs must have a broad analysis which considers and addresses various forms of oppression, including but not limited to racism, patriarchy/sexism, and labor exploitation. Perhaps no group is best qualified and situated to address the last category of oppression than Black professional and trade workers. Given the often overlooked nature of worker-related issues, and America’s increasing hostility toward the “working class,” this essay seeks to encourage mass education and action around such topics.
Simply put, America would not exist without its workers. This group is responsible on the ground level for our mass transportation, auto manufacturing, public school education, clothing, and innumerable other goods and services we enjoy.
On a historical level, American workers fought to secure many rights and protections we now take for granted. Prior to union organizing dating back to the turn of the 20th century, most workplaces had no fire
protective apparatus (i.e. sprinklers) or emergency procedures. Children worked in factories at the expense of acquiring their education; pregnant women had no right to maternity leave; A worker called out sick and risked termination; people often worked 10 or more
hours a day with no lunch break or established weekend of leisure; People injured on the job had no money to sustain their families, and often no hope for re-employment. Harsh and unfair workplace managers could be verbally and even physically abusive to workers or terminate them without accountability; paid vacations and he promise of a pension o secure a worker after retirement did not exist.
Worker unions faced their share of conflicts and were perfect by no means. Their battles to secure worker rights, fair wages, and safer workplace conditions often involved violence, intimidation, and destruction of property. And lest we forget, many of the early unions were virulently racist organizations that prohibited Black membership and actively worked with management to prevent hiring Black people or raising their salaries. In response our ancestors boldly created their own unions, both organizing/educating Black labor and challenging resistant and hostile white management. Unions eventually grew to accommodate Black, white and other workers, albeit still imperfect. Despite their blemished history however, organized unions take rightful credit for making workplaces more tolerant and worker responsive.
Many of you reading belong to unions but do not involve yourselves in union affairs or leadership. This is an unfortunate situation since union dues are often taken from your pay without your consent, and regardless of your involvement. But there are more important reasons why Black people should support unions:
- Union organizing remains one of the most effective means to increase wages.This advantage is crucial for people of color and women who due to racism and sexism are more likely than others to suffer from receiving unequal wages. For example, union workers receive on average, 28% more pay than non-union workers, and union women earn 34 percent more than non-union women African-American union members earn 29 percent more than their non-union counterparts, and Latino union workers earn about 59% more.
- Union workers are more likely to have health and pension benefits. 84 percent of union workers are covered by pension plans versus 56 percent of non-union workers. Seventy percent of union workers have defined-benefit retirement coverage, compared with 16 percent of non-union workers.
- Unions create better systems of management for businesses
- Unions guard against common practices of worker exploitation. For example, union workers by law must be paid time and a half for any hours worked over an agreed upon total (usually 35-40 hours per week).
- Unions provide protect against unfair job terminations and provide workers with representation in disputes with management.
- Unions provide workers the right to grieve unfair employer actions and to appeal employer decisions.
- Unions also negotiate other perks for workers, including free or reimbursed college classes and consumer discounts for certain products and services.
Of course unions come with their share of problems as well. Sometimes seniority clauses allow workers with more years in to progress more than newer but more qualified and productive workers. Very powerful unions (like the United Federation of Teachers in New York City) provide excellent advocacy for their members, but sometimes permit incompetent or unethical workers to keep their jobs, thus reducing the effectiveness of schools for example. Read more about this here. Sometimes, union officials do a poor job of responding to their members complaints and needs. Workers in unions like these find themselves wondering whose side their union is on (like the New York City MTA Union for example I have personally spoken with dozens of MTA workers who speak of receiving poor representation in grievance or appeal meetings and who must provide unheard of amounts of documentation to justify a sick day. In fact, when these workers call out sick, a MTA official actually comes to their house to verify! This is clearly outrageous, and an issue the union should attack).
All in all though, unions are very beneficial for Blacks and Latinos when such organizations are organized, informed, and dedicated to the mission of representing workers. I hope you will read our union newspaper to stay informed and get involved in your union. If you don’t support their activities, the very least you can do is remove incompetent and compromised union leaders from office or challenge the current attack on unions.
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at email@example.com.