WHEN FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT SIGNED the Wagner Act in 1935, giving workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers, African Americans accounted for less than 1 percent of the labor movement. Over the next half century, the number of black workers in unions increased from an estimated fifty thousand to more than three million, roughly 20 percent of the labor movement. The Wagner Act, however, was only partially responsible for this increase. It was largely the result of the federal government taking subsequent steps to promote racial equality in labor unions, steps that, in fact, directly weakened the Act that union leaders once called "labor's Magna Carta." The Wagner Act, after all, included provisions that enabled unions to exclude and discriminate against black workers. Black workers who attempted to join unions found that they were limited to jobs that paid less, provided less security, fewer benefits, and little representation from the union. Only in the 1970s did dramatic changes for black workers come about as unions, prodded by the federal government and besieged by litigation costs, joined with employers to implement affirmative action programs, apprenticeship training, and the integration of previously segregated job and seniority lines. By the end of the 1970s, one in four black workers in America belonged to a union, and today there are far more African Americans in unions than in any civil rights organization.
Although this is an impressive accomplishment matched by few other sectors of society, the prolonged battle to diversify unions has had significant fallout. Labor's racial divisions have left many black workers wary and cynical about unions, and anti-union corporations have seized on this reputation in their campaigns to deny workers their right to organize. Wal-Mart, which offers low wages and bad working conditions, discriminates against racial minorities and women, and is fiercely anti-union, has campaigned successfully in poor and predominantly African-American neighborhoods to gain support for building new, nonunion superstores. Just as the Ford Motor Company did decades ago, Wal-Mart has garnered support from the black community by playing up labor's historical treatment of non-white workers.
Labor's civil rights successes were also marred by a decline of union power and membership during the years when unions diversified. The increase in black union membership was accompanied by a significant decline in the size and influence of the labor movement. Between 1964 and 1985, the percentage of unionized workers in the private sector dropped from 30 percent to 18 percent, and currently hovers around 12 percent nationally, which is lower than it was just prior to the Wagner Act's passage. Black workers have been directly affected by this decline; since 1975, although the percentage of black membership in unions has remained higher than national averages, the actual number of individual black workers in unions has dropped by one-third. Since 2000 alone, the number of African American union members has declined by more than 400,000, down to 2.1 million workers nationally.
Scholars studying the relation between civil rights and the decline of the labor movement have argued that conflicts over race and integration in the labor movement greatly stressed unions at a time when economic and political forces were already working to reduce organized labor's power in the workplace. Although some of these scholars see the decline of the labor movement as primarily the fault of changes in the economy, many emphasize the poor decisions and unwise tactics of labor and civil rights leaders and their followers. Some blame union leaders for failing to address the deeply entrenched racism of their members and failing to offer a broader vision of workplace equality. Others blame the workers themselves, who resisted even the most minor attempts to diversify unions. Still others blame leading civil rights groups, particularly the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for emphasizing racial integration at the expense of union membership, economic justice, and broader issues of class and political power.
Unlike these scholars, I put politics, particularly the Democratic Party's development of national labor policy during the mid-twentieth century, at the center of the labor-civil rights struggle. The absence of a strong and racially diverse labor movement did not result because of the failures of a few or even many individuals within the labor and civil rights movements. Rather, it is the outcome of a political system that, in its effort to appeal to civil rights opponents, developed a bifurcated system of power that assigned race and class problems to different spheres of government. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, the Democrats passed two landmark pieces of labor legislation: the Wagner Act of 1935, addressing the rights of white labor; and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, addressing the rights of African Americans and other racial minorities. Unfortunately, no legislation was passed that might have brought white unions and civil rights groups together. Instead, these two separate Acts institutionalized the labor-race divide, exacerbating an existing social problem at a time when the government could have worked to bridge the gap. By the 1960s, instead of one national labor policy, the federal government had two, each with its own regulatory agency, its own understanding of workplace politics, and ultimately very different understandings of democracy. Not surprisingly, it did not take long for the two to directly conflict with each other.
Democrats initially promoted labor rights at the expense of civil rights. When they finally turned to civil rights, Southern Democrats in Congress and conservative union leaders combined with Republicans to sabotage reform efforts by preventing the creation of a unified regulatory agency that would have handled both labor and civil rights complaints. This move later backfired-at least for unions-when civil rights organizations pushed the federal government to let them resolve their disputes through the courts instead. Contrary to the expectations of many, the courts proved to be much more powerful and successful in integrating labor unions. However, because the courts, and not the labor regulatory agencies, were the primary agents of reform, their efforts showed little concern for the broader state of the labor movement. Many of the court decisions that promoted civil rights simultaneously weakened the bargaining strength of the targeted unions, contributing significantly to the situation we have today-a diverse but weakened labor movement. At a time when many unions were already under siege from a restructuring economy and a revitalized business class, few within the courts were sensitive to the political and financial strain their actions put on the broader labor movement. It did not take long for employers to seize on the vulnerability of unions to their own advantage, working aggressively to defeat unions in the workplace. The 1970s, then, were a time when unions were not only being integrated but were also losing considerable economic and political clout. Unions that suffered financially had to put more resources into lawsuits and less into organizing. Employers began to win more and more union certification elections.
It was also at this time that white union workers started to leave the Democratic Party in droves. Nearly 85 percent of white union voters supported President Lyndon Johnson at the ballot box in 1964, but only half as many white union members supported Hubert Humphrey four years later. The 1968 election represents the first time since Franklin Roosevelt's election in 1932 that a majority of white union members failed to vote for the Democratic Party in a presidential election (see Figure 1.1). The numbers declined to a low of 36 percent for George McGovern in 1972, and only 44 percent for Jimmy Carter in 1980. Numerous scholars have argued that race was an important factor in this shift. The data in Figures 1.2 and 1.3 support their argument. Starting in 1972, when the American National Election Study began consistently to ask whether respondents support government activism on behalf of black Americans, we see a clear and significant split among white union respondents. Majorities of white union respondents who support government aid to blacks have consistently voted for Democratic candidates, whereas white union respondents who oppose government aid have repeatedly voted at rates of 20 to 30 percent less for the Democratic Party. Equally important, the number of these conservative white union members has been more than double, sometimes triple, the number of liberal white union members.
The abandonment of the Democratic Party by significant numbers of white union members has had numerous consequences. First, it allowed Republican presidents to change the composition of the National Labor Relations Board, leading to the overturning of dozens of labor doctrines which, in turn, are perceived by many labor scholars and economists as critical to the massive decline in union power under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. A similar rollback has occurred in the area of civil rights, particularly in the workplace, as a result of changes in the composition of federal courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Second, it has led to significant changes in the Democratic Party regarding how to handle both race and class issues. Democratic Party leaders and their pollsters throughout the 1980s and 1990s were well aware of white union conservatism on race issues, and so they made a series of political calculations and choices affecting their party's policy agenda that produced not only a more conservative stance on civil rights but also a more conservative stance on labor and working-class issues. Despite passionate opposition by both labor and civil rights groups, two of President Bill Clinton's biggest accomplishments were the ratification of a fair trade agreement and the reform of welfare.
The great irony in the decline of both labor and civil rights in the workplace and in American politics is that most of the people actively fighting one another at the time were progressive Democrats-legislators, union leaders, civil rights groups, their lawyers, federal bureaucrats, and judges. At different times in the twentieth century, these groups achieved monumental victories that strengthened and deepened American democracy, but their success often occurred quite apart from or in direct confrontation with other groups. The labor movement of the 1930s, particularly the American Federation of Labor, resisted the complaints of civil rights groups and achieved federal legislation that simultaneously provided unions additional rights and enabled them to more easily exclude African American workers from their ranks. While many national labor leaders supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they also successfully fought for important loopholes that would allow unions to avoid being targeted by the new antidiscrimination laws. When those loopholes were disregarded by judges a few years later, and civil rights groups called for affirmative action and greater integration of the workplace, union leaders and their members became some of the most vocal proponents of the backlash against civil rights. Meanwhile, lawyers became a backbone of the new era of "rights." However, rights would be of a limited type. Courts granted rights for individuals being discriminated against on the basis of race but refused to extend these rights to those discriminated against on the basis of class. The lawyers representing civil rights clients were often disinterested in class-based arguments, even those coming from their own clients, and, equally often, were tied to corporate power, representing civil rights clients pro bono, which was backed by the financial support of corporate firms and their clients. These lawyers promoted a rights regime that, although not exactly dovetailing the desires of corporate America, was unwilling to confront economic power in any meaningful way. As seen most recently in the Supreme Court's latest affirmative action case, Grutter v. Bollinger, corporate America has embraced certain forms of the rights revolution: Fortune 500 firms wrote amicus briefs and corporate lawyers were the primary force behind the litigation. The use of corporate lawyers to fight union racism has thus often served the dual agenda of expanding civil rights and, in the process, weakening the chief opposition to free market capitalism.
In many ways, then, this book is not simply a study of labor's racial divide. It is both a biography and an autopsy of the Democratic Party during the New Deal era; it offers an account of its birth, an analysis of its often precarious life, and an inquiry into its death. The New Deal coalition, which rose to prominence under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and remains a source of nostalgia for Democrats trying to revive their party today, was always divided along racial lines. Two of its most powerful constituents were southern whites and white union members. At the same time, in response to its promise and achievements, African Americans and Latinos began to vote in large numbers for Democratic candidates, creating an unsustainable coalition of racial minorities and supporters of racial apartheid. Although a fight over civil rights was inevitable, the Democrats tried to keep their coalition together. One way to do this was to promote civil rights through quieter, and at the time less controversial, legal channels while avoiding the issue as much as possible in the legislative and electoral process. But relying on civil rights lawyers and judges to carry out civil rights policy was a double-edged sword. The legal system was a powerful weapon in achieving significant victories for civil rights, especially in the early stages of the movement. Unfortunately, lawyers benefited from these victories as much as did black, Asian, and Latino Americans. Once emboldened, the legal community pushed its own version of a progressive agenda, listening less to those they "represented" than to their own values that tended to emphasize racial classifications and "rights" instead of systemic inequalities, particularly those that intersected with race and class. Today, both the labor and civil rights movements are struggling, independently and together. The union movement has changed dramatically since the 1960s-minority workers play greater leadership roles, and some of labor's biggest victories have involved campaigns of African American and Latino workers. Labor and civil rights groups also work together for the passage of civil rights and workplace legislation. When united, they have managed to expand social welfare legislation and veto specific efforts to dismantle their achievements. But in the aftermath of George W. Bush's reelection victory, the leaders of both movements are soul-searching. Some national labor unions have ended their long-standing membership in the AFL-CIO, and some are calling for an end to their involvement with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the agency that unions fought so hard to establish in the 1930s. Civil rights groups are similarly debating their next move. Although there is vehement opposition to George W. Bush, the Democratic Party has not provided a clear alternative. Democrats did little to promote racial equality during the 2004 campaign, and leading Democrats have blamed critical civil rights issues such as voting rights, welfare rights, affirmative action, and desegregation for the party's misfortunes in the voting booth.