Sunday, November 30, 2008

Book Review--Robert Zieger, For Jobs and Freedom: Race and Labor in America since 1865

Robert Zieger's new survey of African-American labor history, For Jobs and Freedom: Race and Labor in America since 1865, is a first-rate overview of the topic. As a survey, Ziegler doesn't break a ton of new ground, but I highly recommend his book for anyone interested in the topic. Moreover, Ziegler makes many several interesting points about African-American relations with other minorities, the role of African-Americans in the modern labor movement, and the racism that has traditionally plagued the American working class.

In some respects, the Zieger's story is both expected and sad. African-Americans experienced significant discrimination ever since their freedom in 1865. Both government and individuals worked to suppress African-Americans from improving their lives. Labor unions conspired in this racist program. While Zieger identifies several interesting cases of interracial unionism, the reality is that nearly all labor unions, whether local or national, discriminated against blacks. For many, racism was central to their appeal. This situation changed little when African-Americans migrated north during and after World War I. Forced into ghettos, African-Americans not only faced bad living conditions, but also significant discrimination from northern whites. Immigrants became whiter when blacks came into the picture; white solidarity formed over keeping them out of the workplace. African-Americans fought against racism from the beginning. Figures such as A. Philip Randolph led the fight for equality in the workplace and within the American Federation of Labor. The CIO did a slightly better job of organizing African-Americans but the kicking out of the communist unions in the 1950s, the failure of Operation Dixie, a program to organize the southern textile mills, in 1946, and endemic racism among the rank and file, made African-Americans suspicious of even this more progressive union structure. Once the civil rights movement accomplished the destruction of segregation and achievement of voting rights, Martin Luther King and others turned toward the plight of the poor and civil rights became about workers' rights. But with King's assassination while he was in Memphis supporting the garbage workers and the hostility of George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, this never really came to fruition. Finally, African-Americans did become central to American unions, but the manufacturing jobs they entered into in the 1970s and 1980s were soon shipped overseas.

Much of this story is familiar; again, the book is a survey. But Zieger takes on some interesting issues worth further exploration. First, he actively defends his stance to make African-Americans stand for race in America. This is problematic to say the least. Zieger is right when he says that African-Americans have a distinctive history and have faced more concrete and legal obstacles than other races. That's probably still true today, though Mexicans and Native Americans might have something to say about it. But it doesn't really matter--the story of African-Americans simply cannot stand for the story of race in America. This feels like a 1960s era construction. If the book is about African-Americans and labor, that's fine. It's a unique story that should engage any historically minded thinker. But other racial minorities also have compelling stories. If the book is about race, it HAS to talk about these other groups.

This unfortunate prioritizing of the black experience over the experience of others occasionally leads to somewhat questionable statements. For example, Zieger bemoans George Shultz's Order No. 4. Shultz, Nixon's Secretary of Labor, forced all businesses holding federal contracts to adopt affirmative action plans. Zieger's problem is that this could mean that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was expanded beyond blacks to Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans as well. Zieger says this inadvertently deflected attention from African-Americans. OK, maybe it did. And certainly the Nixon administration cared little about blacks. Nonetheless, and despite the inconsistent application of Order No. 4, the policy was something to be celebrated then and enforced today. Again, even though African-Americans have a unique history of oppression, emphasizing the story of one group as the story of race in America leaves a lot to be desired.

Zieger's discussion of race and the modern labor movement is quite fascinating. Zieger rightly I think accuses the current labor movement of playing down African-American concerns. One of the most important African-American voices within the AFL-CIO is the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU). The AFL-CIO has never been comfortable with constituent groups, preferring the face of a united front, which weakens the union in the long term. The CBTU has done a good job of fighting for African-American concerns within the labor movement, although often to mixed results for an organization that often gives more lip service to them than actually centering their unique needs. As Zieger points out, in 2004 the AFL-CIO decided not to fund constituent groups, which was really stupid given the success of CBTU get out the vote efforts among African-American communities.

Moreover, the CBTU and African-Americans generally seem to have felt solated in the power struggle that has racked labor in the last five years. The creation of the Change to Win coalition in 2005, led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)'s president Andy Stern was spun to progressives as necessary to center organizing over political lobbying and to restart the struggling movement. Stern may be right, though certainly few concrete results have been attained. Zieger claims that Stern has shown little interest in African-American issues; he quotes long-time African-American labor activist Bill Fletcher saying that "They feel that it [the power struggle] is not about them and does not include them. I would go further and say that for union members of color, this is especially the case." Certainly labor has not done a good job articulating the specific concerns of their members of color, though this is just one of many problems with the AFL-CIO structure that mostly replicated itself in Change to Win.

Like any good survey, For Jobs and Freedom makes you think about a wide variety of issues. One particularly interesting point came in his discussion of how African-Americans were accepted into factory labor at the same time that globalization eliminated those jobs. Zieger talks about conservative black commentators like Thomas Sowell and John McWhorter blaming the victims for their bad economic times. Indeed, but I also wonder if the tough economic conditions economic restructuring forced working-class blacks into is also not a bellweather for the current economic crisis. One concern I have about this crisis is that we simply don't have the industrial infrastructure anymore to find employment for our workers. 30 years ago, theoretically the government could spur domestic manufacturing as a cure for our recession. Now that's almost impossible. We can push manufacturing and consumption, but that's through foreign factories and American domestic consumption, which played no small role in our current problems. No doubt conservatives will blame the white victims too while they are buying their ivory backscratchers. Again, I wonder if in 30 years we will look back on this current crisis and see the struggles working-class people had in the supposedly prosperous 1990s and early part of this decade as the canary in the coal mine that was ignored by a greed-crazed America.

A more peripheral, but extremely interesting, argument Ziegler makes is on unions and health care. His overarching point here is about the role of labor to speak for millions of people and how its leaders are often correct. He discusses how United Auto Workers head Walter Reuther and other labor leaders of the postwar period consistently fought against employer health care because of its expense. They tried to convince corporations to see universal health care as an intelligent expansion of the New Deal that would save both them and their workers in the long run. Of course, Reuther was right about that and we are facing the health care crisis of the present in no small part because of the short-sighted intransigence of business.

Zieger is correct that regardless of the labor movement's racist past, it must play a leading role in fighting for a rejuvenated America. Without a dynamic labor movement, how will working people have their voices heard by the American government. This is probably nearly as true under a Barack Obama administration as it was under George W. Bush. Certainly, that Obama has not included a future labor secretary one of his key financial appointments is a bad sign.