Unions Have More Minorities Than Ever, and Democrats Have Noticed

A new study released Tuesday shows that black and Latino workers make up fully 60 percent of New York City's unions.

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A new study released Tuesday shows that black and Latino workers make up fully 60 percent of New York City's unions. This is an amplified example of a trend seen across the country — according to the U.S. Department of Labor, black workers had the highest union membership rate in 2012. Democrats have noticed these trends, and the changing face of labor is now driving political campaigns as well as immigration reform.

Ruth Milkman, the CUNY sociology professor who conducted the study, said she was "shocked" to find that white males make up only 23 percent of unionized labor in New York City. "We all carry around in our heads this stereotype of a union member as a white male hard hat," she says.

In New York City, Democratic mayoral candidates are tailoring their campaigns to these minority union members. Milkman says, "Collectively, who [the unions] represent is black and brown workers, Latinos and African-Americans. In terms of get-out-the-vote efforts, those are the people that are going to be targeted." Candidates Christine Quinn, Bill de Blasio, Bill Thompson, and John Liu have all been endorsed by different labor groups. One of Quinn's endorsements comes from the New York State Laborers Union. "She’s the first gay woman running for mayor. Who’d have thunk she’d be getting the endorsement of what used to be considered one of the more conservative, moderate unions?" Ed Ott, former director of the New York City Central Labor Council, said of Quinn.

Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO is embracing the demographics by championing immigration reform. A December 2012 survey of its members shows that 62 percent of them favor comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. Eliseo Medina, who is the specified immigration point person at the Service Employees International Union, explains the change:

Immigration reform was not part of labor’s agenda years ago because illegal immigrants were seen as competition and cracking down on undocumented workers was what people thought needed to get done. After 2009, labor was on record as being for immigration reform and fighting for the rights of immigrants.

Unions are advocating immigration reform across the country. The New York Times reported in May that in California, undocumented workers in labor unions were leading protests to create a paths to citizenship. Michael Podhorzer, the political director of the AFL-CIO, explains, "there’s a greater awareness that when immigrants have the same rights of other workers, that helps all workers."

But while that's created some unification among Democrats, it's make some Republicans more skeptical of an immigration overhaul. National Journal's Beth Reinhard writes, "One high hurdle . . . will be persuading skeptical Republicans that legalizing the 11 million undocumented workers living in this country is not a ploy to boost dwindling union membership and the voting rolls of a friendly Democratic Party."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.