Friday, January 21, 2011

Unions and Racism

Coming out of yesterday's discussions at LGM of the left blogosphere and lack of labor coverage among progressive websites was this comment by J.Dunn after I said that the constant progressive critique of unions as racist and sexist were unfair:

I would argue that those critiques were right (at least in retrospect) and that unions and the New Deal social contract in general as constituted then probably had to die to usher in the civil rights and women’s lib era. Also, that it was probably worth the cost in the long run to put us on what I’m increasingly sure is a permanent path to a vastly more inclusive, fully democratic, and socially tolerant society. Most of those changes aren’t going back in the box, barring apocalyptic scenarios, and the gains were very real and broadly realized. 

I feel this whole argument is deeply problematic. Obviously, the gains made by the civil rights and women's rights movements are great, but that's not the point. What's important here is the assumption that unions were responsible for holding these groups back and that without breaking the New Deal Coalition, civil and women's rights would have been delayed or denied.

I'm going to focus more on racism than sexism here, but much of the critique holds.  What I find remarkable is how strongly the image of hardhats beating hippies in 1968 remains relevant within the minds of many progressives. Maybe this is because a lot of ex-hippies are among the leaders of Democratic causes today. Maybe it's because today's progressive writers tend to come from the same upper-middle and elite classes that the hippies did and thus have never actually known union members and don't feel much class solidarity.

Unions did suffer from racism.. This cannot be argued. Most unions were dominated by white men who believed in full employment for whites under a single-family income. The big industrial unions of the CIO were filled with white men who moved north for industrial work and immigrant men who found that becoming "white" after World War II meant significant improvement in social acceptance. If becoming white meant also rejecting blacks, well, it's not as if that was going to be hard for people who usually looked down on blacks anyway. Meanwhile the old AFL craft unions had always committed themselves to white solidarity, with Samuel Gompers openly disdainful of immigrants, women, blacks, and child labor.

Employers often used race to split working-class solidarity. They would hire large groups from multiple rival ethnic groups in Europe, figuring the occasional fight on the factory floor was much less of a problem than unionization. Coal companies would go to Alabama and recruit black stikebreakers, take them up to West Virginia, and put them in the mines, exacerbating racial tension to undermine the possibility that the strikebreakers would join the strikers. They also saw hiring black factory workers as a way to undermine unions in the 1930s onward. And while I'm hardly excusing racism, if you see another group of people as a threat to throw you and your family out of their jobs and onto the street (and remember this is in a society before the New Deal with essentially zero safety net), it'd be pretty easy to target that group.

I'm consistently amazed by how little modern progressives (or hippies in the 60s) seem to understand this. Unions didn't cause racism, they reflected it. All of society was racist and sexist in the 1960s. Much of it remains so today. It's important to recognize how unions were racist and sexist. It's equally important to understand that unions were not the primary institution holding back civil and women's rights. Doing so and continuing to taint unions today with that charge serves capital's interests.

What's more, the story is a lot more complicated than we are led to believe. First, union members vote Democratic at far higher rates than non-union members. They might be bad on personal racial issues, but they vote for the political party that supports relative racial democracy. Second, there were many union members who did support workplace equality, including in the rank and file. UAW President Walter Reuther was a big-time ally of the civil rights movement, speaking at the March on Washington for instance. Reuther and his allies in the UAW always struggled with educating their members on the need for equality. But it was resisted by the rank and file who did not want to work with, live with, or go to school with blacks. And as Democratic politicians in Detroit found out as early as the 1940s, union members would vote Republican if race dominated the campaign.

So what was Reuther to do? In the UAW's case, the union itself was pro-equality, but the rank and file was not. Breaking the UAW did not help equality for anyone--it made inequality much worse. Unions have always struggled with educating their members, but that's a hell of a lot harder than it sounds. I might teach my students a powerful version of American history focusing on a story of struggle and equality, but they aren't all going to come away with that message. It's not strictly on the union structure to control their attitudes of their members that are shaped by family tradition, church, social clubs, television and radio, and any number of other factors, including workplace culture and labor unions.

And given the impossibility of this task, we are down to blaming working-class white men for being racist and being glad they are out of our political coalitions. While that might sound good from the pedestal we place ourselves on, it's pretty bad from a coalition-building standpoint. And it certainly can get in the way of building class alliances to fight the worst of neoliberalism.

Racism is a problem throughout society. Let's blame unions for their share of it.  But let's also remember that unions have done more than almost any organization in this country to promote democracy and equality. And let's also remember that unions only played a small part in holding back the rights of women and African-Americans. The decline of unions in this country has not helped democratic movements in any way. It has made inequality much worse and seriously hampered the ability of working people from all races and genders from fighting back against globalized capitalism.