Labor Organizing in America: A Civil Right?

In the United States, worker rights and civil rights have a deep and historic connection. What is slavery, after all, if not the abuse of worker rights taken to its ultimate extreme? A. Phillip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, recognized this link and, as early as the 1920s, spoke passionately about the need for a black-labor alliance. Civil rights activist Bavard Rustin, Randolph’s protege and an adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., joined his mentor as a forceful, early advocate for a black-labor coalition.

The very title of the famous 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” conceived by Randolph and organized by Rustin, reflected their blacklabor perspective. Two years later, they founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute. to solidify the black-labor alliance.

Still today, the benefits of trade union membership for African Americans, women and Hispanics are clear. According to recent estimates, the wages of black union members are 3 percent higher than their non-union counterparts. The union wage advantage for women is 34 percent; for Latino’s, it is a whopping 51 percent. Therefore, the Union movement’s decline should be of special concern. In the mid-1950s, about onethird of the workforce belonged to unions. Today the proportion is 12 percent.

Is this decline inevitable; the unavoidable result of globalization, with union jobs going to lowwage countries? Apparently not. Although unionization rates have declined across most developed nations, nowhere else has deunionization been as pronounced or as sustained as in the United States.

In “Why Labor Organizing should Be a Civil Right,” Richard Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit observed that the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees most unionization campaigns, does not offer effective remedies for illegal corporate retaliation against prounion workers. Under NLRB procedures, workers who are fired for supporting unions, may not win back their jobs for years, if at all.

NAACP president Benjamin Jealous and AFLCIO president Richard Trumka have endorsed the idea of treating the right to organize as a civil right.

More leaders of the liberal labor alliance should begin advancing this concept while also working to elect representatives, senators, and a president who will translate it into law.

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