Michael Goldfield. Monthly Review. Volume 49, Issue 3. July/August 1997.
In the United States of America, the fate of labor-its ability to win lasting gains, its success in sustaining solid organizations, its episodic periods of class consciousness, as well as its brief flirtations with broader class and independent political organizational forms-has always been closely tied to the issue of race. This is not only true today, but has been the case from the earliest colonial beginnings.
Throughout most of U.S. history, despite a wide range of resistance, non-whites have been discriminated against, excluded, and denied equal access to political, social, and economic opportunities. Although employers and the ruling class in general have been responsible for the racial subordination of non-whites, most majority white labor organizations-with a few important exceptions-have participated in this oppression.
There have, however, been several brief periods when large numbers of whites, perhaps majorities, have supported, or at least tolerated, equality for non-white minorities: the years immediately preceding the American Revolution of 1776-1783, the early part of Reconstruction after the Civil War (1867-1874), a stretch of the 1930s and 1940s, and a few years in the middle 1960s at the height of the civil rights movement. Solidaristic labor struggles and organizations have often emerged, not merely in hospitable situations, but even in the most unlikely times and places, including the Deep South during the most racially oppressive periods.
This contradictory history argues against the assumption, traditionally common on the left, that unions will inevitably evolve toward non-racist, egalitarian positions as the numbers of African-American workers increases. But it also suggests the inadequacy of the currently fashionable view that all whites (and especially all white male workers) are inevitably and incurably racist-whether for deeply rooted psychological or cultural reasons or, in a more materialist version, because of the compulsions of labor market competition.
We need to assess the current situation of race in the labor movement against the background of this complex history, in the hope of reviving some of that movement’s better traditions and finally eradicating the racism that has consistently weakened the movement and eroded its class solidarity. This history should also make it clear that,just as an anti-racist commitment is vital to the success of the labor movement, an anti-capitalist class politics is the best hope for the anti-racist struggle.
To understand today’s situation, we must go back at least to the 1930s and 40s, when there was a tremendous upsurge of interracial industrial unionism, and a new, broader culture of solidarity. That trend has to be situated in the context of certain economic and demographic developments. While economic development and changes in industrial and occupational structures, as well as the racial, ethnic, and sexual composition of occupations and industries are never the whole story, they are the indispensable starting point, not only for the 1930s, but for all periods, including the present.
From the time of the Civil War through the first three decades of the twentieth century, U.S. industry underwent relatively continuous, rapid expansion, and with it, of course, came a tremendous growth in the industrial workforce. In the North, industrial employment before the First World War was overwhelmingly white, while in the South, African-Americans had gained important footholds in many industries during the late nineteenth century-notably coal and metal mining, especially in Alabama, iron and steel, longshore, railroads, tobacco, food processing, and wood. Before 1900, 90 percent of African-Americans were located in the South, largely in agriculture. With the expansion of northern industry at the beginning of the First World War, and the cutoff of European immigration, black workers began to migrate to the industrial cities of the North in large numbers as well as to southern cities. By 1940, over six million African-Americans, almost 48 percent of the total black population, were classified as urban.
Mexicans and Chicanos were drawn in large numbers into southwestern and West Coast agriculture and food processing during this period, as well as metal mining throughout the Southwest. Puerto Rican workers increased their employment in New York City, while Asian-Americans made further inroads in canning and other industries on the West Coast. The militant sugar plantation workforce in Hawaii, numbering tens of thousands by the 1920s, was overwhelmingly nonwhite, with Japanese and Filipinos making up the largest groups.
Facing this new industrial configuration with its multi-racial, multi-ethnic workforce, the CIO, from its beginning in 1935, not only advocated inclusive interracial unions but espoused an egalitarian rhetoric. A question arises whether this represented a real break from AFL racial policies, or merely a continuation of AFL racial practices in a new industrial setting-a setting in which white workers, who could not control the labor market for themselves in unskilled industrial workplaces without enlisting the support of their fellow black and other non-white workers, made the necessary opportunistic overtures.
The answer to this question is not simple, because the CIO and its various component unions had a wide range of racial practices. Individual unions were at times and in some places quite forthright inasserting the rights of their nonwhite members. At other times and places, CIO officials and particular unions hardly seemed different from the AFL. And there are some unions that began as racially progressive, later becoming quite backward, as well as one or two examples of the opposite trend.
The range of CIO practice was particularly striking in southern industrial cities like Memphis. There the Communist-led United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA, after 1944, the Food and Tobacco Workers of America, FTA) began organizing black workers who were previously considered unorganizable. UCAPAWA Local 19 in Memphis was very militant and had black leadership, including its president. It’s almost unbroken string of organizing successes stimulated the organization of white workers in both integrated workplaces and in those that were overwhelmingly white, showing that the fears of racially conservative CIO leaders-that organizing blacks first would alienate the white workers-were, at the very least, exaggerated. Yet at the same time, for example, conservative Memphis CIO director W.A. Copeland, who owed his position largely to national CIO leader and Philip Murray ally, John Brophy, opposed integrated meetings of black and white workers and expressed special venom for FTA’s racial policies.
If “moderates” in the CIO national office supported racist leaders, it was not necessarily because they completely agreed with their racial attitudes. It was largely because their commitment to building interracial solidarity, or even to building a dynamic growing labor movement, was outweighed by their desire to eliminate communist influence and to achieve respectability among business leaders and national political elites. This is a legacy for which today’s dwindling union organizations are still paying dearly.
Left-led unions were generally committed not only to integrated unionism but to varying degrees of racial egalitarianism. Some like FTA, the Mine Mill and Smelter Workers (which in addition to its black membership in Alabama had significant Mexican and Chicano membership in the Southwest), and the United Packinghouse Workers were majority white unions with significant numbers of non-white workers. These unions fought aggressively for job rights for their members, engaged in anti-racist education, and were deeply involved in fighting Jim Crow practices outside their workplaces. There were also certain left-led unions with only small percentages of black and other non-white workers who engaged in similar activities. These unions included the Farm Equipment Workers (FE), the Fur and Leather Workers, and the National Maritime Union, the latter having barely 10 percent black membership, with a black man, Ferdinand Smith, as its secretary-treasurer. Other left unions were not so exemplary, but with a few exceptions the left-led unions were far better than their non-left counterparts.
Left and racially egalitarian unionism was largely defeated during the late 1940s. The CIO right, in the guise of anti-communism, destroyed and undermined the most promising bulwarks of interracial unionism. FTA’s largest local, Local 22 in Winston-Salem, was attacked so badly by the national CIO in a race-baiting campaign that the local not only was decertified in a National Labor Relations Board campaign, but could never be reorganized by the AFL-CIO. The Steelworkers, who had shared some of the racially egalitarian perspective of the United Mine Workers in their initial organizing, soon solidified as an organization whose department seniority system served to protect the better paying, higher-skilled jobs for white workers. Under their president, Philip Murray, they took the lead in destroying the interracial Mine Mill locals in Alabama by openly appealing to the racism of white workers. Years later, the CIO was still trying to figure out why the black community in Birmingham would have nothing to do with them.
The Post-Second World War Period
The anti-racist promise of the 1930s and 1940s died in the anti-communist and generally anti-left climate of the post-War period. The years after the Second World War are correctly seen by many on the left as a period of bureaucratization and retreat by the CIO, a loss of militancy and grass roots democracy, a drawing closer to the capitalist class on both domestic and foreign policy. All this is true. What is not sufficiently emphasized in such accounts is the degree to which their retreat on racial issues was at the center of these trends.
With the defeat of the left unions and the abandonment by the national CIO of basic commitments to civil rights for minorities in the workplace and in the society at large, the possibilities for racially egalitarian unionism diminished greatly. Nevertheless, the CIO, particularly more liberal anticommunist unions like the auto workers, maintained an undeserved reputation on civil rights. The huge, postwar housing boom, largely financed by government loans (in particular VHA and FHA), completely excluded non-whites, especially African-Americans. Skilled construction jobs for housing and the massive highway construction also excluded minorities. Hardly a peep was heard from the politically sanitized, bureaucratized CIO. Within the individual CIO unions themselves the situation of minorities was hardly more salutary, as unions in major industries like steel, mining, and auto allowed the conditions of their black members to deteriorate.
What the large CIO unions might have done in fighting against racial discrimination is suggested by the struggles of black workers and the remnants of the labor left during the 1950s. The UPWA, the FE, Mine Mill, the less radical sleeping car porters, remnants of the United Public Workers, as well as the several hundred member Local 1199 continued successful civil rights activity. The CP-supported National Negro Labor Council (NNLC), subpoenaed, harassed, and red-baited by the government and the national CIO, with support from only a small segment of the labor movement, carried on many labor-related civil rights activities in the early 1950s. In Cleveland, for example, in December 1952, the NNLC mobilized fifteen hundred pickets protesting the refusal of American Airlines to hire blacks in any but the most unskilled positions. Twenty percent of the demonstrators were white. In Louisville in 1953, the NNLC engaged in a yearlong campaign to get the new GE plant to hire and upgrade black workers; inthat city they put similar pressure on Ford and GM and on the railroads. In all these cases in Louisville they had the support of the large FE International Harvester local union.
While African-Americans were generally excluded from more skilled jobs during the post-Second World War period, and even from some less skilledjobs as in southern textile, and driven out of certain industries where they had been a large percentage of the laborforce (e.g., southern sawmills, tobacco manufacturing, and mining), they were hardly marginalized in the economy. In meatpacking, steel, auto, farm, and construction equipment, transportation, and hospital work, African-American workers, while heavily concentrated in the lower-paying occupations, were disproportionately employed in the industries as a whole.
Despite their greater representation in many of the old CIO unions, black worker influence did not translate into greater militancy by their unions around civil rights. CIO unions had been at the head of the battles for racial equality during the 1930s and 1940s. Yet, as the new civil rights movement emerged during the 1950s and 1960s, unions were at the margins. The sit-in movement which began in February, 1960, had as its leadership and foot soldiers African-American college and high school students. When working class people became involved-in Montgomery, for example, it was the cooks, housekeepers, and other African-American workers, who were the vast majority of those who boycotted the busesit was not generally under union auspices.
With some notable exceptions, labor struggles by blacks for equal rights were not led by unions; rather, they often targeted white-led labor unions as part of the problem. Black workers and civil rights organizations repeatedly picketed publicly financed construction sites around the country which refused to hire non-white workers. In one celebrated instance in 1964 at the city-financed Bronx Terminal Market, NewYork city officials intervened to force the hiring of one black and three Hispanic plumbers. When non-white plumbers, who had previously been refused membership in Plumber’s Local 2, arrived for work, all the union plumbers, supported by their former business agent George Meany, then president of the AFL-CIO, walked off the job. Black caucuses existed during the 1960s and 1970s inthousands of workplaces, making demands for equality that should have been made before by their unions. In steel, both the companies and the unions resisted the demands for equality for black steel workers. Both were the target of large numbers of suits under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Certain unions, however, briefly used the impetus of the civil rights movement to aid in the organizing of African-American workers. AFSCME was among the most prominent. Their successful campaign to unionize the overwhelmingly black Memphis garbage collection workers was made famous by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. there.
The Present Situation
Over the past several decades, as Peter Meiksins shows in his article here, women and non-whites have become an increasingly large percentage of the labor force. Where in the economy are the growing numbers of non-whites located? It has been argued that minorities, African-Americans in particular, are becoming increasingly marginal to contemporary U.S. society. There is, to be sure, important evidence to substantiate this argument. For several decades unemployment rates for Latinos (with the exception of Cubans who stand midway between other Hispanics and whites) and blacks have been double that ofwhites. Surveys taken among the unemployed and discouraged workers (those who are out of work but are not currently looking for ajob and are thus not counted among the officially unemployed) suggest that several times more members of minority groups than whites say they would take a job if they could find one. The prison population of 1.5 million is heavily minority, currently approximately one-half African-American. Poverty and unemployment go a long way to explaining why the U.S. military is disproportionately non-white. In 1995 African-Americans made up 19.4 percent of all enlisted personnel, although only 11.4 percent of all officers. And, there are of course many industries, including high-paying ones like steel, auto, and meatpacking, with disproportionate numbers of African-American and other non-white workers, which have dramatically cut back their labor forces in recent decades.
Yet though these facts are important, they are not the whole story. On the one hand, there are a number of industries whose workforces are declining (including mining, agriculture, and petrochemicals) in which minorities are underrepresented. On the other hand, minorities, particularly blacks, are disproportionately represented in some sectors which have grown the most, including transportation, communications, utilities, government employment, social services, hospitals and health care, cleaning and building services, protective services, prison personnel, and as already mentioned, the military. African-Americans have also gained increasing employment in certain sectors that were previously closed to them, including wholesale and retail sales and certain areas of manufacturing, most notably textiles. Thus, African-Americans and other minorities are heavily concentrated in sectors that are not only crucial to the production of surplus value and the maintenance of capitalism today, but in those sectors that will undoubtedly remain vital in the foreseeable future.
In virtually every industry (whether they are over-represented or under-represented) African-Americans and other non-whites are disproportionately located in the lower pay and lower status, although still highly essential, occupations. In the growing and important health care industry, for example, African-Americans are concentrated in the lowest ranking occupations. While in 1994, they made up only 4.2 percent of doctors and 3.7 percent of dentists (a slight increase from 1983), they made up 9.3 percent of registered nurses, 18.7 percent of licensed practical nurses, and almost 30 percent of nurses aides, orderlies, and attendants.
The same story can be told not only within but across various industries, with blacks in 1995 making up 24 percent of telephone operators, 29 percent of postal clerks, 29 percent of bus drivers, 34 percent of garbage collectors, and 28 percent of correctional officers in the nation’s prisons, sadly one of the fastest growing of U.S. industries. With the exception of social work and a few other occupations, minorities are grossly underrepresented in a number of higher level occupations. Among airline pilots, tool and die makers, aerospace and petroleum engineers, they represent one percent or less. And there are only small percentages of minority workers among auto mechanics, electricians, carpenters, construction superintendents, and architects.
There is some debate about whether the present situation of minorities in the labor force is due largely to present discrimination or is rather the result of historic discrimination combined with recent large scale changes in the domestic economy. There is further debate about whether blacks as a whole are better off or worse off since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Finally, and related to this, is the question of whether racial discrimination has lessened or grown (and the associated question whether whites, particularly white workers, will ever change). An increasing number of liberals and putative leftists are very pessimistic. While I believe that the pessimistic conclusions are unwarranted in the long run, the situation is deeply contradictory, and the evidence is open to a wide variety of interpretations. It is worth taking note of some of these contradictory trends.
On the one hand, there have been vast changes as a direct result of the civil rights movement. First, many changes in the harsh system of white supremacy that existed, particularly in the South before the 1960s, cannot simply be dismissed. Most important is that the repressive and extremely violent system of racial oppression which existed in the southern rural areas before the 1960s, supported by the state (including the federal government), has been mostly dismantled. Many parts of the South seem to display far more interracial activities and institutions, from schools and neighborhoods to beaches, than much of the North. Certain white attitudes for the country as a whole, at least as expressed in public opinion polls, have changed substantially. By the 1980s white Americans overwhelmingly responded favorably to integrated schools and transportation, equal access to jobs, open housing, and even the right of people of different races to intermarry. Several decades earlier, most whites rejected these views.
It is tempting to argue that much of this attitudinal change is superficial. Yet there have been some striking transformations. Before the 1960s, interracial couples were in most parts of the country a prescription for violent attack and universal condemnation. Today, interracial intimacy is barely another piece of the complex landscape, belying the claim of many who look to the primacy of psychology and culture and argue that a deep-rooted sexual jealousy was at the root of racial discrimination. The civil rights movement successfully exerted enormous pressure to gain access to large areas of U.S. society previously unavailable to middle class and working class minorities. Educational opportunities opened up. Public employment opportunities grew. Many formerly all white occupations that involved face-to-face contact with whites, including bank tellers, store clerks, and bus drivers, have become disproportionately non-white.
Because of these many changes, conservatives often argue that there are no more discriminatory barriers, only a debilitating ghetto culture and a lack of individual will. This argument is not new and has been asserted by conservatives and other bigots throughout U.S. history. Many liberals and social democrats, on the other hand, have minimized the existence of current discrimination and attributed the plight of minorities, particularly the most impoverished people in inner city areas, to structural changes and historic discrimination, problems that could conceivably be overcome by broad social democratic policy initiatives.
Neither of these views can stand up to scrutiny. In a stagnant and highly dislocating capitalism, racist attitudes find fertile soil among those who feel most insecure. This phenomenon is visible all over the world. Without a solidaristic labor movement that takes aim at the cause of people’s problems-the nature of capitalism itself-many will always go looking for scapegoats. The same public opinion polls that show many whites becoming more liberal on certain racial issues also show them having racist, factually incorrect, and hostile views about welfare and affirmative action, just as they did earlier about busing. Overwhelming numbers of whites in Louisiana voted for former Ku Klux Klan leader and protofascist racist David Duke in two major elections. Others across the nation might have done likewise, given the same chance.
Despite the highly contradictory nature of the present period, which includes the enthusiastic, if often strained, acceptance of African-Americans and other minorities in music, literature, sports, and other cultural spheres, there is much that signals retreat, often seemingly orchestrated by those in power. There is a tendency among many liberals to see this retreat as largely the province of the Republicans. This claim is simply wrong, since Republicans have no monopoly on racism, although they are clearly at the cutting edge of racial retreat.
The signals are striking. In 1995, when the new Republican majority Congress took over, they brought in sixty-five new pages, sixty-four of whom were white, the other an Asian-American. In previous recent sessions, fifteen to twenty had been Latino, African-American, or other minorities. Presidents Reagan and Bush made a concerted effort to reduce the number of black federal judges. From 1980 to 1992, only 2 of the 115 judges appointed to the U.S. Courts of Appeals were black, one of whom was Clarence Thomas. And, of course, there was the infamous Willie Horton episode in the 1988 campaign.
But if Republicans have been more guilty of playing the racist card, the Democrats too have made their symbolic, though necessarily more subtle (since they, unlike the Republicans, rely on a substantial black vote), appeals to white racism. Bill Clinton’s snubbing of Jesse Jackson, for instance, and his calculated attack on hiphop singer Sister Souljah at a Rainbow Coalition meeting during the 1992 campaign were clearly meant to reassure whites.
Beyond these signals of racism are the irreducible facts of the labor market. There can be little doubt that, despite the high-profile publicity given to affirmative action, women and racial minorities still face enormous discrimination in the labor market. I have already indicated the underrepresentation of minorities in upper level working class occupations and their disproportionate numbers at the upper end of the spectrum. In professional and executive occupations the picture is even more extreme. For instance, 97 percent of senior-level male managers are white, while 6 percent are African-American, 3 percent Asian, and 4 percent Hispanic. African-American men with professional degrees earn only 79 percent of the amount of their white male counterparts, while African-American women with professional degrees earn only 60 percent. And on all fronts, there is ample evidence of overt discrimination in hiring practices, as well as the de facto discrimination that results from the fact that a large amount of hiring is done through informal networks, networks that are almost always all white.
Unions and Race Today
The number, location, and conditions of minority workers make one thing very clear: the organization of minorities, as well as women, has to be placed at the center of the labor movement today. This is so not only because the movement’s values require it but because the strength and success of labor depend on it. As we have already seen, African-Americans and other non-white minorities are a large and growing part of the labor force. They are heavily concentrated both in those occupations and industries that are already highly unionized and also in those areas where the labor force is expanding most rapidly including healthcare, services in general, government, communication, and transportation. Minority workers represent both a tremendous reservoir of support for labor unions and a great potential for new organizing. A look at some statistics is revealing.
In 1995, 14.2 percent of whites in the non-agricultural civilian labor force were members of unions, while 19.9 percent of African-Americans were members. Hispanics and other minorities were slightly more unionized than whites. Surveys taken since the 1970s have also shown that black workers who were unorganized were more than twice as likely to say that they would join a union if one began to organize their workplace. Women, Hispanics, and southerners in nonunion workplaces also responded more favorably than white males in general.
Aside from the more complex reasons of political consciousness, there is an economic basis for these pro-union attitudes among minority workers. Economic studies have shown that unions have a dual effect on wages. On the one hand, they tend to raise the average wage significantly, thus raising the pay of all employees. On the other hand, they narrow the wage dispersion between the top and the bottom. Since women and minorities tend to be among the lowest paid, union organization tends to raise their wages bya greater proportion than those of white males. The AFL-CIO unions have increasingly become more diversified by sex and race, with women and racial minorities making up an increased percentage of their total membership. In addition, the best prospects for current organizing appear in those venues where women and minorities are heavily concentrated. These related factors are among the more important reasons why at least some unions have developed a more diverse leadership group, with increases in women and minorities in top, visible leadership positions.
The response of unions to continuing discrimination in the labor force, its changing demographic composition, and the changing complexion of union membership has varied greatly. Many unions, of course, have responded by doing nothing at all. They have neither attempted to organize new segments of the labor force, nor altered the complexion of their leadership, nor made any efforts to fight discrimination inthe workplaces they represent or the society at large.
In other unions, the situation is different. Between 1960 and 1975, the public sector at the federal, state, and local level went from barely 5 percent of the workforce organized to almost 40 percent. A disproportionate number of the workers organized in this sector were female and minority. The main public sector unions, including the postal unions whose organization came much earlier, thus have not only a disproportionately minority and female membership, but an increasingly diverse leadership body at both the national and local levels. These unions include the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA), the American Federation of Government Employees (representing federal workers) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), rep resenting state and local government workers. Each of these unions has substantial representation of women and minorities in national and leadership bodies, with the NEA and the AFGE having had African-American presidents. AFSCME’s executive council of thirty-three members in 1997 had nine female members and approximately a dozen minority members (of whom ten are African-American, one an Asian-American, as far as can be seen from their names and pictures). Other unions, including most of the old CIO unions, as well as almost all the old AFL unions, have been much slower to change their leadership composition even when their membership base has changed substantially. The 1982 Civil Rights Commission report on equal employment opportunity and unions, paints a fairly dismal picture, at both the national and local levels.
Yet the composition of leadership bodies and their degree of diversity, while important, hardly tells the whole story. In the battle to gain equal employment opportunities in the wake of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, very few unions-the exceptions being several former left-wing unions-took the lead in fighting for the rights of minority workers. Despite rhetorical stances in favor of civil rights, most unions, including the UAW, the Teamsters, and the Steelworkers, were the object both of struggles by black worker caucuses and massive anti-discrimination suits. In general these unions defended existing discriminatory arrangements, rather than playing a role in fighting against them. The best that unions during this period and at the present time have done is to make their leadership bodies more diverse.
Some unions, together with the new AFL-CIO leadership, have trumpeted this diversity. But, with the exception of certain campaigns of equal pay for equal work, their record in fighting for the rights of women and minorities on the job is rather weak. Little has been done to struggle to open up hiring and to integrate white male preserves, except in token numbers. The initial impetus for such change mandated by the federal government under Title VII of the 1964 and 1972 Civil Rights Acts has receded, with few unions willing to pick up the baton.
There is little evidence of the type of campaigns that left unions waged during the 1930s and 1940s on behalf of nonwhite workers, or even the hiring and upgrading campaigns by the labor left in the early 1950s. Today’s unions play little role in mass protests against housing and mortgage lending discrimination, neighborhood and school issues, protests against police brutality, and other issues of importance to minority communities. Unions today have done little to combat the racial attacks on welfare and affirmative action, although unions on the West Coast have had an important involvement in fighting anti-immigrant hysteria.
In general, today’s unions, with or without the current change in leadership at the top of the AFL-CIO, seem quite hesitant to confront issues of racial inequality. Even when unions themselves are directly victimized, they receive little publicity. An example of the latter is the selective racial hiring by management at the Cannon Mills textile plants in North Carolina. As black workers became increasingly pro-union, employers began hiring more whites and Hispanics. When Hispanics became pro-union, employers began hiring nonEnglish speaking Asians. Such racial tactics should be publicly exposed to the maximum degree. While the greater diversity of today’s union leadership is certainly a change for the better, as other articles have suggested in this issue, their commitment to racial equality has been more a matter of talk than of action. The failure to organize the South is particularly symptomatic.
Race and the Politics of Labor
It should be clear from the history of the U.S. labor movement that the rise and fall of anti-racist unionism has been closely tied to the fate of the American left. Although there are no doubt many economic, social, and cultural reasons for the current situation, a major factor in determining the less than glorious recent record of the labor movement has been the legacy of the anti-left hysteria which dominated the post-War era. The retreat of the left in the unions, and the attempts by many union leaders to prove their “respectability,” had lasting effects which have not been overcome to this day. They will not be overcome without a new political alignment in the labor movement.
The assertion of an aggressive racially egalitarian policy by unions is virtually impossible as long as they stay tied to the Democratic Party. As the Democrats have moved more into line with racial conservatives (the ending of welfare, abandonment of affirmative action, support for more repressive anticrime legislation including more police and the extension of the death penalty), the AFL-CIO under the Sweeney leadership has deepened its embrace. What the labor movement needs today is independent, aggressive, class-based action against racial subjugation; and that is impossible without a rejection of the Democratic Party.
It needs to be emphasized, again, that the object of mobilizing class solidarities across racial divides is not only to strengthen the anti-racist struggle for its own sake but also to strengthen the labor movement itself in its struggles against capital. A change in policy by unions is essential to achieving broader class goals, but it is also vital for the attainment of the minimal goals in which mainstream labor leaders claim to be interested. The labor movement will not be invigorated without aggressive appeals to and representation of the interests of female and minority workers.
Having a diverse face and stressing merely lowest common denominator issues, without also confronting sexual and racial inequalities, will not lead to a dynamic labor movement. And without stressing broad class issues, including the grievances of those most excluded and oppressed, the labor movement will never project the broad socially progressive image that will enthuse wide layers of the working and middle classes. The historical record shows that no radical social change or broad class mobilization in the United States has ever had even a chance of success without doing this to some degree.
A revitalized labor movement must break with the business-dominated two party system, take broad aim at the capitalist system, lead struggles around a wide range of class issues in society at large as well as at the workplace, and place the demands for sexual and racial equality at the top of its marching banner.