Marchers from the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) in a Labor Day parade in New York City, September 1982.
Barbara Alper Getty Images
By Christine Owens
September 4, 2017

As we continue to grapple with the Charlottesville, Va. tragedy and the deep and dark history it sprang from, it’s far from enough to simply condemn the loudest racists among us.

We have to do more, and on this Labor Day, that means examining the roots of supposed race-neutral measures that are being deployed around the country to stifle economic opportunity and security for all working people, but especially people of color. And there is no older or more effective economic weapon in this battery than preventing workers from joining together to collectively bargain for their rights on the job.

A total of 28 states, including three this year, have passed right-to-work legislation, a sledgehammer that dilutes worker organization and bargaining, paving the way for lower wages and a host of labor violations. The brainchild of known white supremacists in the first half of the 20th century, right-to-work is a direct descendent of Jim Crow, and was born in southern states where white politicians panicked about losing their grip on power.

Today, right-to-work laws and other anti-union efforts continue to suppress black workers and communities, including in the brutal—and unfortunately, successful—anti-union campaign by Nissan in Mississippi that came to a bitter end just last month.

Meanwhile, as cities across the country pass vital increases to the minimum wage, corporate lobbyists have convinced dozens of Republican legislatures and governors to respond by crushing local raises through so-called “preemption” bills—state laws that bar localities from adopting measures to improve labor standards for local residents, regardless of community needs or business environment.

This often means majority-white state legislatures passing bills that suppress wages for majority-black cities. Last year, it was working people in Birmingham, Ala. who lost their right to fair pay when the state legislature snatched it away by nullifying the city’s higher minimum wage. Just last month, the Missouri legislature struck down a long-overdue minimum wage increase in St. Louis—a tremendous blow to a community reeling from the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, which put into sharp contrast the persistent, deeply entrenched racial inequities that limit opportunity for so many.

New research from the Economic Policy Institute finds that workers covered by a union contract earn 13.2% more in wages on average than nonunion workers who have similar levels of education and experience. But importantly, the report concludes that black and Hispanic workers get even more of a boost from unionization than their white counterparts, suggesting that stronger unions could help to close longstanding pay disparities. While 42% of U.S. workers overall are barely scraping by at jobs that pay less than $15 an hour, that figure is much more pronounced for black workers (54%) and Latino workers (60%). Closing those gaps—and raising pay for all low-wage workers—is crucial.

 

As we seek to turn outrage into action, we would do well to consider not just how to fight against the crudest and most vocal displays of hate in this country, but how to fight against the hate embedded in our public policy—the hate disguised as “pro-business” agendas that keep millions of people of color locked in poverty. When a policy like raising the minimum wage—a concept itself rooted in our history of slavery—has such a direct and powerful impact on black and Latino communities, it’s time for our politicians to consider whether opposing it can ever be a racially neutral choice.

In the last speech of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr. told a group of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn. something he repeated throughout his life: that the fight for civil rights, economic justice, and labor rights are inextricably tied. Dr. King’s words were true in 1968, and they are just as true—and just as urgent—today.

Christine Owens is executive director of the National Employment Law Project.

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