Race and labor intersect in the economic crisis

By Guest Columnist Dec 17, 2008

By mchen When the negotiations over the auto bailout sputtered to a halt last week, deep fault lines in country’s workforce were laid bare. The most obvious rift was between white and blue collars: Washington has seized virtually every opportunity to sop up Wall Street’s mess with public money. Yet lawmakers have blasted United Auto Workers as unproductive and undeserving, lumping union workers together with dysfunctional Detroit executives. There’s also a regional splinter: The Republican-led opposition in Congress was rooted in Southern right-to-work states—longstanding harbors of anti-union hostility and, not coincidentally, the investments of foreign rival automakers. The talks collapsed as Republican Senators like Richard Shelby of Alabama insisted that rescue funds be tied to wage cuts. It’s hardly surprising to see politicians denigrating working-class people, but the racial dimension of the auto bailout issue is more subtle. The decline of organized labor in America has deeply impacted communities of color. Black workers have historically been loyal elements of the labor movement, despite facing institutionalized discrimination within the union structure. During the civil rights movement, black workers’ dual struggle—against not only exploitation by employers but oppression within labor as well—led to mobilization within union ranks for fairer treatment and political representation. In recent years, blacks have suffered disproportionately from the bleeding of the unionized workforce across many industries. And the current economic downturn threatens even deeper losses. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute points out in that black workers make up an especially large share of the auto workforce. And just as auto industry wages provide a rough guidepost for manufacturing job sector as a whole, black auto workers tend to earn more in auto manufacturing compared to other sectors. According to the Institute, the stakes are particularly high for black workers if Detroit topples, exacerbating an overall spike in black unemployment, and “the loss of these solid, middle-class jobs would be a devastating blow.” Yet the racially charged battle against auto workers in Washington may be sparking a grassroots pushback. As Detroit’s bailout prospects disintegrated in Congress, workers in another industry won a long fight in the very seedbed of union-busting politics. Though the management had campaigned for years to suppress organizers, employees at Smithfield Foods’ meatpacking plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina voted to unionize last Thursday. The triumph was bittersweet, however, reflecting an incomplete convergence of the labor and racial justice movements. Unable to share in the victory were many Latino workers who had been pummeled by federal law enforcement’s national crackdown on undocumented immigrants. After the plant lost many Latino workers in the wake of the federal crackdown, the remaining workers, most of them black, mobilized in favor the union, United Food and Commercial Workers. Though organizers also gained support from Latino employees, some had reportedly been afraid to take a public stand, and the immigration sweep seemed to justify fears of government and management. The debate over the auto bailout has centered on how companies have failed to adapt to the tides of the global economy. The survival of organized labor pivots on a parallel challenge: can unions regain their political footing by building a broader movement that embodies the new American working class? mchen is a writer in New York City.