Looking to the Future, Organized Labor Is Banking on a New Civil Rights Movement

Many sectors of the economy that want representation from unions have large racial-minority membership, and labor is working to help them.

As fast-food workers and organized labor plan mass protests on Wednesday for a $15 minimum wage and a union, they are also relaying the message that workers' rights are civil rights. As racial minorities continue to make up more and more of the lower-wage employment sectors, organized labor is betting that working to advance racial equality will be at central to its survival.

Numerous labor unions have taken on issues directly related to racial justice. The AFL-CIO has been a vocal advocate of "ban-the-box" initiatives, which would remove the requirement for employers to ask prospective employees about previous convictions. Advocates say the change could help African Americans, who face higher rates of incarceration than whites and have a national unemployment rate that is frequently double that of white Americans, more easily find jobs.

Labor movements also spoke out in recent racial flash points. Show Me 15, the St. Louis-area branch of Fight For 15, the organization pushing for a $15 minimum wage and a union for fast-food workers, protested in front of the Police Department in Ferguson, Mo., the day after the shooting of Michael Brown.

The push for racial justice by unions reflects the changing face of organized labor and service work in general. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, black workers are more likely to be in a union than white, Asian, and Hispanic workers.

The fast-food and service-industry workers who are at the center of new union organization efforts are disproportionately racial minorities. African-American workers make up 20.5 percent of all combined food-preparation and serving workers, according to another BLS report, and Hispanics or Latinos make up 18.7 percent of those workers.

Home-care workers, who will join fast-food workers in the Fight for 15 strike Wednesday, also have a large base of people of color. The same BLS numbers found that 35.9 percent of nursing, psychiatric, and home health aides are African American, and 15.4 percent are Hispanic or Latino.

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which is helping with the April 15 strikes, told National Journal that low pay makes life for the high number of racial minorities in these sectors more difficult, calling it a form of "occupational racism."

Henry said that the Fight for 15 movement's previous round of strikes nationwide included a 15-minute action in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, in which workers conducted a "hands up, don't shoot" demonstration to protest the shooting of Brown in Ferguson. In New York City, the slogan was "I can't breathe," the rallying cry after New York police officers were involved in the death Eric Garner. "The people fighting are primarily African American and Latino and Asian. They are in the same neighborhoods and communities have given organizational form and structure to give them an extra lift," Henry said.

Henry highlighted the work being done by the "Moral Mondays" movement in North Carolina, which is being led by the state NAACP's charismatic and sometimes incendiary leader, the Rev. William Barber II, in protest of the state General Assembly's recent rightward turn, as an example of an alliance between civil-rights and labor movements.

Barber told National Journal he welcomes organized labor's involvement, adding that the focus on low wages affects all people, especially poor people, young people, and racial minorities.

"The same people that are fighting entitlements and fighting the poor, and make you think certain advantages are being given to some people, are selling you a myth," Barber said. "The people selling you those myths are the same people standing against living wages."

Justin Johnson exemplifies this intersection. Along with working at McDonald's, he works in health care in the morning and then does valet work in the evening. Johnson, who is based in St. Louis, has been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Johnson said it's important to have representation, and that the common thread between civil rights and labor rights is giving people a voice—because, he said, "closed mouths don't get fed." He also dismissed McDonalds' recent announcement that it would be raising its minimum wage this year, since it would not apply to franchise restaurants like the one where he works. "They announced it on April Fools' Day because they knew it was a joke."

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said this bond between labor and civil rights has existed for decades, going back to when her union expelled local unions that were segregated in the 1950s.

But Weingarten added that, for a long time, the relationship was largely transactional, which has been changing in recent years. "We are walking in each other's shoes," she told National Journal. "We've invested in the process of working together and of building in our community," she said.

This isn't to say there aren't still difficulties with race in labor. Henry says that half of the union she leads is white, but that it has been conducting leadership- and membership-development programs. "Racism is being used to divide us economically," she said. "In the fight to lead a decent life, it includes being able to fight against discrimination."