Jobs like this, at a Ford assembly plant in Wayne, Mich., are getting
The Rev. Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr. set forth the goal. Civil rights and union membership
were to be intertwined. The labor movement, Dr. King wrote in 1958, "must
concentrate its powerful forces on bringing economic emancipation to white and
Negro by organizing them together in social equality."
That happened in the 1960's and 1970's. But then unions lost bargaining
power and members. And while labor leaders called attention to the overall decline,
few took notice that blacks were losing much more ground than whites.
In the last five years, that trend accelerated. Despite a growing economy,
the number of African-Americans in unions has fallen by 14.4 percent since 2000,
while white membership is down 5.4 percent.
For a while in the 1980's, one out of every four black workers was
a union member; now it is closer to one in seven. This loss of better-paying
jobs helps to explain why blacks are doing worse than any other group in the
current recovery. Labor leaders have acknowledged the disproportionate damage
to African-Americans, but they decline to make special efforts to organize blacks
and offset the decrease, saying that all groups need help. That lack of priority
angers one prominent black scholar.
"The future of black workers is very bleak indeed if they lose their place
in the union movement," said William Julius Wilson, a professor of sociology
and social policy at Harvard. "I would hope there would be an effort on
the part of union leaders, white and black, to address this very important issue.
They haven't done so as yet."
A worker at a Chrysler plant
in Detroit in 1952. Unionization helped many blacks get good-paying jobs
in the 1960's and 70's.
The decline was particularly sharp last year. Overall union membership fell
by 304,000, and blacks accounted for 55 percent of that drop, the Bureau of
Labor Statistics reports, even though whites outnumber blacks six to one in
unions (12.4 million to 2.1 million). The trend seems likely to continue and
perhaps accelerate as General Motors and its principal parts supplier, Delphi,
cut costs in their struggle to be profitable.
"We have lost 20,000 members since the end of 2000 in Detroit and its
suburbs alone," said Linda Ewing, director of research for the United Auto
Workers, "and a large number of the workers in the auto and parts plants
in this area are black."
Unions, like other institutions in the post-World War II economy, were slow
to admit African-Americans to the club, and there is still resistance today
in some of the higher-paying skilled trades. Yet blacks came to rely on unions
even more than working class whites did to gain entry into the middle class,
through jobs that gave them annual wage increases and company-paid health insurance
and pensions. Even now, the percentage of black workers who are in unions is
slightly greater than the percentage of unionized white workers: 15.1 versus
12.2. "Every survey shows that blacks are the group that most wants to
be unionized," said Richard Freeman, a Harvard labor economist.
Immigration, retirement, automation, the shifting of work overseas, low seniority
and privatization have all played a role in the lopsided decline of unionized
jobs held by African-Americans. That decline is especially noticeable in manufacturing
and the federal government, two strongholds of black employment that have gone
through cutbacks in union workers in recent years.
The cutbacks are particularly severe in the auto industry. In addition to the
latest problems at G.M., Ford Motor said Thursday that it would soon announce
"significant plant closings."
The impact on blacks has gradually drawn the attention of labor leaders, including
John J. Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. "The percentage of black
workers who have been knocked out of union jobs is one of the little-known tragedies
of the last five years," he said.
Despite this damage, the federation is not making a special effort to sign
up more African-Americans in other industries, Mr. Sweeney said. "We are
going to be organizing more blacks," he explained, "but we are also
going to be organizing more Latinos and more women."
Mr. Sweeney's reluctance to single out blacks has its counterpart in the breakaway
union movement, Change to Win, which promises more aggressive organizing. Rather
than focus on any particular group of workers, said Edgar Romney, secretary-treasurer
of the new coalition, "we are targeting industries and communities in our
Blue-collar workers earn high pay in manufacturing jobs, and the sharp decline
in black union membership in that sector has helped to pull down the median
weekly wage of all black workers, union and nonunion alike. Thus far this year,
the median weekly wage earned by blacks fell by 5 percent, to $523, adjusted
for inflation, according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Whites as a group are also experiencing a drop in their median weekly wage,
but for them the decline this year is less than 1 percent, to $677, adjusted
Some labor economists bridle at such comparisons. Robert Topel of the University
of Chicago argues that for many years the wage gap between whites and blacks
either shrank or remained stable, after adjusting for differences in education,
experience and other factors. This occurred even as union power declined, he
"If you ask me for a list of things that would be more important in understanding
racial disparities and economic success, unionism would not be high on the list,"
Mr. Topel said. "Education, development of skills and family environment
all play much bigger roles than collective bargaining power."
The decline in black union membership is not simply the result of the erosion
of employment in manufacturing. The Service Employees International Union, for
example, represented for years large numbers of African-Americans employed in
food service, janitorial work and nursing home care. Many were women. As they
retired, Hispanics and Asians replaced them, in the jobs and as union members,
said Patricia Ford, a former executive vice president of the S.E.I.U.
"You can see the change from what was traditionally African-American to
Hispanic," Ms. Ford said. "That is the most striking."
Union membership among Hispanics, in fact, has risen gradually in this decade,
to 1.7 million last year. That is partly a result of special efforts to organize
Hispanics in service industries, Mr. Romney said.
On another front, privatization and outsourcing have eaten away at federal
employment of black workers represented by the American Federation of Government
Employees, which says that nearly 25 percent of its 211,000 members are black.
African-Americans make up an even higher percentage of the union's members
at the operations that the Bush administration is turning over to private contractors.
These include laundries at veterans' hospitals, ground maintenance and food
service at government installations and security guards at numerous federal
buildings - much of it work that paid only $15,000 to $20,000 a year, but that
came with pensions and health insurance.
The union's leaders resist viewing what is happening in racial terms. "We
see it as a class issue rather than a race issue," said Sharon Pinnock,
the A.F.G.E.'s director for membership and organization. "It is impacting
all workers, black and white."
Automation at the Postal Service, mainly in the form of sorting machines that
require many fewer workers, has cut into the ranks of the National Association
of Letter Carriers and the American Postal Workers Union, both with high percentages
of blacks among their members.
And then there is the tendency of many corporations to move operations to suburbs
from downtown locations. In the process, unionized African-American workers
are often replaced by nonunion workers, in many cases white.
The Communications Workers of America makes that complaint, citing customer
service call center operations as one example. "They gradually move to
the suburbs, eliminating African-American union members in the city," said
George Kohl, the union's senior director of collective bargaining.
Mr. Sweeney said such stories anger him. "We have learned a lot from the
civil rights movement; it is important that we highlight the most egregious
offenses," he said. "But we have to focus on all the workers who are