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Black Americans and Organized Labor: A New History

Author(s):Moreno, Paul A.
Reviewer(s):Briggs Jr., Vernon M.

Published by EH.NET (May 2007)

Paul A. Moreno, Black Americans and Organized Labor: A New History. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2006. xii + 334 pp. $50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8071-3094-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Vernon M. Briggs, Jr., School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University.

In 2006, the U.S. Department on Labor reported that black workers had the highest percentage of union members (14.5 percent) of any of the four racial and ethnic groupings used to compile such data characteristics. Yet this level of participation comes at a time when the percentage of the nation’s labor force who belong to unions (12.0 percent) has been declining for over fifty years. Paul Moreno, a professor of history at Hillsdale College in Michigan, recounts the long and difficult struggle by black workers to gain access to this important American institution. But in his final analysis, he questions whether the quest has been deserving of the effort.

Most of this tale has been told before (e.g., see Marshall, 1965, Jacobson, 1968). There is nothing “new” about the theme, although his treatment of the subject is exceptionally well-documented and comprehensive in its scope. But the detailed story also contains an undercurrent that ponders the motivation for the existence of unionism itself. This vantage point gives this book a unique orientation.

All of the overt barriers (e.g., membership bans, segregated locals and physical intimidation) to black access to unions as well as the covert barriers (e.g., manipulated seniority practices and nepotistic preferences for acceptance into craft apprenticeships) of the past are carefully catalogued. Likewise the external attacks on the discriminatory behavior of unions by prominent black intellectuals (e.g., Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey) are assiduously outlined. So are the tactics used by key union officials to sidetrack the internal reform efforts of black leaders (e.g., A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin) within the labor movement to abandon these prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory practices. Careful notation is given to the anti-black antics used by the otherwise pro-labor political representatives of the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the Democratic Party to ignore the issue for as long as possible. Likewise, the reluctance of the evolving government bureaucracy (i.e., the National Labor Relations Board) for decades to include the fair treatment of black workers as part of the duty of unions to represent the interests of all workers equally is carefully recounted. All of these barriers and more had to be overcome.

The cynical use by employers of black workers as strike breakers is also discussed The practice only added fuel for those white workers who were looking for reasons to exclude blacks from their unions.

On the other hand, mention is made of the fact that some unions ? like the United Mine Workers ? did seek-out and organize black workers when others were not so inclined. Many other black workers gained access to union membership after the Congress of Industrial Organizations came into being in the mid-1930s. It encouraged organization along industrial (rather than craft) jurisdictions by its member unions. Many black workers were already employed in these jobs when they were unionized.

The supportive role of public policies ? such as the issuance of executive orders, the creation of fair employment practices commissions, the judicial rulings of courts, the passage of equal employment opportunity legislation and the administrative adoption of affirmative action policies are all woven into the dialogue.

But interlaced in the examination is the recurring questioning of the rationale for unionism. Sprinkled into the topical discussions are references to the classic anti-union writings of Henry Simons, Frederick von Hayek and Milton Friedman. Allusions are made to neo-classical theories of discrimination (i.e., Gary Becker) that treat racial prejudice as an exogenous “taste” factor that economists cannot explain. No reference is made to any of the literature that responds to these views. Or is any credence given to the fact that regardless of what academics may think, workers have to confront the imperfect world as it exists; not an idealized abstraction of reality. Workers of all races have given their lives, spilled their blood and shed their tears in the belief that their economic security and well-being can best be protected from the excesses of corporate capitalism only if they can be represented collectively.

Furthermore, the author feels that freedom in America has been diminished by the loss of the “liberty to contract” by individual workers that has accompanied the legislative sanction and court approval given since the 1930s to the right of workers to bargain collectively. When unions are not present, management simply determines the wages, hours and working conditions unilaterally. The only option most workers have is to accept or reject the terms. Circumstances usually dictate that they accept them. Collective bargaining, on the other hand, offers opportunities for both employers and employees to choose from alternatives ? which enlarges the spectrum of choices for both sides.

The libertarian notion that underlies this book is that unions exist largely to restrict the supply of labor for their own selfish interests. To imply that the history of exclusion of blacks from unions is but a subset of this basic tenet is simplistic at best. At its worse, it diminishes the uniqueness and pervasiveness of the racism that blacks have had to confront. Moreover, the heart of what collective bargaining is about is giving workers a participatory role ? a “voice” ? at the work site (see Freeman and Medoff). In a democracy, efforts to enhance equity are a more important raison d’etre for the existence of unions than are concerns about alleged union power to constrain efficiency.


Becker, Gary S. The Economics of Discrimination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

Freeman, Richard B. and Medoff, James L. What Do Unions Do? New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Jacobson, Julius, editor. The Negro and the American Labor Movement. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968.

Marshall, Ray. The Negro and Organized Labor. New York: John Wiley, 1965.

Vernon M. Briggs, Jr. is Professor Emeritus at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. Earlier in his career he co-authored, with Ray Marshall, The Negro and Apprenticeship (1967). More recently, he has studied the impact on immigration policy on the American labor force. His latest book is Mass Immigration and the National Interest (2003).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII