The claim that organized labor has been a force for racial egalitarianism can only be called a myth. It is one of the many myths that pro-union historians have perpetuated--similar to those, for example, that unorganized workers suffered from an "inequality of bargaining power" (Reynolds 1991), that strikes are conflicts between employers and employees rather than between different groups of employees, or that violence was more often employed against than by unions (Thieblot and Haggard 1983). Perhaps the greatest myth of all is that organized labor is good for workers generally. In fact, unions transfer income from the unorganized to the organized, and depress total income to such a degree that even organized workers are poorer (Vedder and Gallaway 2002).
This article gives an account of the ways in which unions have used racial discrimination as an economic weapon. Before the Civil War, labor leaders claimed that the classical liberal, antislavery vision of "free labor" actually established "wage slavery" for white workers. The former slaves, excluded from white unions, often had to fight their way into industrial employment as strikebreakers. Organized labor lobbied for decades for special legislation that would enable them to make their strikes effective. When they finally achieved this in the New Deal, the federal government faced the problem of securing "fair representation" for black workers. This ended up producing affirmative action after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The "Divide and Conquer" Legend
The New York Times recently profiled Richard Trumka, a United Mine Workers official and now American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations president. The story displayed a photo of Mr. Trumka in front of a portrait of Mary Harris ("Mother") Jones, a heroine of organized labor after whom the leftwing magazine was named. It featured a speech that Trumka gave to a steelworkers' convention, in which he claimed, "There's no evil that's inflicted more pain and more suffering than racism--and its something we in the labor movement have a special responsibility to challenge.... Because we know, better than anyone else, how racism is used to divide working people" (Greenhouse 2009).
Trumka was repeating one of the hoariest myths in the history of the American labor movement. Usually calling it the "divide and conquer" tactic, labor leaders claim that employers have deliberately fomented racial animus among their workers, in order to keep the "working class" disunited and weak. Trumka's UMW is particularly proud of having established a successful interracial union in the face of such employer tactics. He is not likely to tell stories like those of the Illinois coal strike of 1898. When an agreement between the UMW and the mine owners expired, the UMW went on strike, and violently prevented black workers from taking their former jobs. The union had the full support of Illinois Governor John R. Tanner, who swore that he would use the state militia to "shoot to pieces with Gaffing guns" any train bringing in black workers. The militia captain in Pana, Illinois, pledged his support. "If any Negroes are brought into Pana while I am in charge, and they refuse to retreat when ordered to do so, I will order my men to fire," he pledged. "If I lose every man under my command no Negroes shall land in Pana." Several black miners were murdered in the ensuing weeks. The AFL passed a resolution praising Governor Tanner (who had been indicted by a grand jury for allowing the situation to get out of control), and "Remember Pana" became a UMW slogan. Mother Jones asked to be buried nearby those "responsible for Illinois being the best organized labor state in America" (Moreno 2006: 61-63, Gorn 2001: 289). While it is true that the UMW succeeded in many places in establishing interracial unions--and in Alabama, at least, in the face of genuine "divide and conquer" tactics by the mine owners--in Illinois the "near invisibility" of blacks in UMW offices "served as a reminder to black miners of just how successful whites had been in blocking their entry into the coalfields above the Ohio River" (Lewis 1987: 100).
The Illinois UMW was just one example of the fact that race was much less often used against as by organized labor. Race was a convenient way to do what unions do. Unions are, in economic terms, cartels. Their goal is to insulate their members from competition, to increase the price of their product (wages) and lower its output (hours). Unions do this by "controlling the labor supply." And one of the most convenient ways to do this is to exclude easily identified groups like racial minorities (Becker 1971, Posner 1984, Reynolds 1984). The South African economist W. H. Hutt was among the first to observe this phenomenon. While racial animus certainly was a factor in labor-market discrimination, "We do not, however, find color prejudice as such the main origin--nor, perhaps, even the most important cause of most economic color bars. The chief source of color discrimination is, I suggest, to be found in the natural determination to defend economic privilege" (Hutt 1964: 27). South Africa's Mines and Works (Colour Bar) Act of 1911 was passed to appease white union members' demand to abate black competition. When the owners continued to employ black miners, the "Rand Rebellion" of 1922 ensued, "one of the bloodiest labor disputes ever to occur anywhere in the world," followed by more restrictive legislation to reserve jobs for white unionists in 1924 (Sowell 1990: 27).
Free Labor and "Wage Slavery"
In colonial and antebellum America, groups of white workers often petitioned state and local governments to eliminate competition from free black workers. Organized labor was largely hostile to the antislavery movement, and most abolitionists opposed unions. Understandably, white workers feared competition from emancipated slaves, and white workers in the North especially feared an influx of southern freedmen. This is one of the reasons for which Lincoln continued to say that he was in favor of "colonization" of the black American population, and reassured northerners that free blacks would not glut the labor market and depress wages. He told Congress in 1862, shortly before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, that free blacks would likely supply less labor than they had as slaves, and thus increase white wages. "With deportation, even to a limited extent," he said, "enhanced wages to white labor is mathematically certain. Labor is like any other commodity in the market--increase the demand for it, and you increase the price of it. Reduce the supply of black labor, by colonizing the black laborer out of the country, and, by precisely so much, you increase the demand for, and wages of, white labor" (Lincoln 1953-55, IV: 535).
More fundamentally, antebellum labor leaders disputed the argument that chattel slavery was really any worse that the free-labor system of the North (or Great Britain), which they called "wage slavery." Here they echoed the arguments of slavery advocates like John C. Calhoun and George Fitzhugh, who claimed that chattel slavery was more humane and just than wage-labor market competition. Slavery provided a kind of cradle-to-grave welfare state for its workers, because owners had a permanent economic interest in the whole person, while northern employers had only a temporary interest in the worker while he was productive and exploitable. This view of the moral equivalence of slave labor and wage labor led some cynical Europeans to observe that the Civil War was nothing more than a disagreement between one group of capitalists who wanted to own their slaves and another group of capitalists who wanted to rent their slaves by the hour. Labor leaders claimed that northern antislavery advocates failed to see that capitalism actually gave employers so much economic power that they did not need physical coercion in order to dictate terms to their workers. This was the principal argument in favor of union power--unions provided a countervailing power to that of organized employers. Unions "leveled the playing field," and were necessary to address the fact of unequal bargaining power (Hale 1923, Reynolds 1991).
For their part, abolitionists dismissed the argument that equated chattel slavery and wage slavery. They emphasized the individual right of "self-ownership" and the absence of physical coercion as the definition of freedom. William Lloyd Garrison viewed such union complaints as apologies for slavery, and Frederick Douglass entitled one of his editorials "The Folly, Tyranny and Wickedness of Labor Unions" (Douglass 1874). Douglass had personal experience with organized labor discrimination, having worked as a ship caulker ha New Bedford, where the white caulkers insisted that blacks be limited to unskilled labor (McFeely 1990: 79). A white caulkers union similarly drove black rivals off the Baltimore wharves shortly after the Civil War (Thomas 1974: 2). The District of Columbia typographers union blackballed Frederick Douglass' son, Lewis Douglass, because he had...