TRANSCRIPT: (EP. 62) How Labor Unions Ca ...

TRANSCRIPT: (EP. 62) How Labor Unions Can Help Reduce Racism and Bigotry

Dec 17, 2022

Note: I am no professional transcriber. I have done my best but there may be small mistakes here and there, or just me cleaning up a poorly worded sentence; also many typos. Thanks for not holding this against me. ✌️😊

Bear with me here as we investigate this subject here.

The super short version is that union solidarity helps reduce racial aninmosity.

Now, this doesn’t mean that this has been, is, or will always be true. In fact, many, even most unions back in the day in the 19th and 20th century were explicitly racist and segregated. I don’t want to sound like I’m simply blowing by that fact and we will most likely hit on it a few times as we go forward.

And it doesn't mean that some super racist neo nazi kkk member who signs a union card will suddenly turn into the most woke human on the planet.

LINKS for anyone interested in the AUDIO or VIDEO versions!

But, unions have, historically, and more importantly once de-segregated post civil rigjts era, been a positive influence on racism amongst workers in those unions.

There are a lot of reasons for this which we will discuss as we go on but I do also want to note that -I- believe, and this is my own thing here because I didn’t find as much talking about this as I did for race, but I believe basically everything that I;m going to point out, highlight, and talk about concerning race is also true about things like religion, culture, and classism.

Basically I;’m suggesting that all, or at least most of the things about unions which promote racial inclusion affect these other issues in the same or similar ways. I’ll try to throw a frw reminders in here as we move forward about this because I think it is both important and interesting to think about.

So I’ve mentioned this idea about unions reducing bigotry, and specifically racism, a few times in past episodes and even other places around the internet and in real life and it’s always met with a bit of disbelief. 

But here’s the thing  - The very structure and purpose of a union is based on solidarity. And this solidarity brings people together - which I guess is obvious just definitionally in the word solidarity - and they also help teach their members about things like politics, political machinations, and, to put it in very simple language, having a specific goal and wirking towards that goal.

This all brings people together and forces them to work shoulder to shoulder even more so than their work does, which creates familiarity and so on and reduces judgments based on outward appearances.

For whatever reason, it just seems like people want to reject this notion outright without really examining what’s going and, well, too bad if you’re listening because we are going to explore this together right now…

So let’s go back in time a bit and talk about when unions weren’t quite so wonderful… 

There is a lot of history here - of union racism and integration and alliances and fracturing for strategic purposes. Basically a LOT of bad stuff with a few good moments mixed in here and there.

The pre-civil rights era history of unions and race is, at worst, utterly horrific, and, at best, pretty bad. Their aren't too many brightly shining beacons here.

One interesting story to look at is that of Louisiana Longshoreman before, during, and after the American Civil War.

And before i dive in here I do want to mention something that I'll mention later, and something which is mentioned in the most influential paper I could find on thesis subject by fremantle et al,  - unions were begun at specific times and places, born of particular material conditions.

This isn't to take away the base grossest of the racism here or the segregation, I just think it's important to think about the time and place that these workers toiled. 

None of this was good. It was just racism at the end the day. That said…

Before the war, the union workers on the New Orleans waterfront, mostly newly immigrated white europeans, were abolitionist. They vocally decried slavery.

Now I’m sure some part of this was moral. But we have to face the facts here that a good portion, perhaps even most of it, was because of financial considerations.

Slavery drove down wages for white dock workers. That’s just the reality of the world these men lived in and they saw it for what it was. Free labor causes wages to decline. Seems obvious, right?

So the workers, with a mix of economic and moral conviction, wanted an end to slavery.

And then the war happened, and slavery was abolished, and then the dock workers of Louisiana encountered another economic reality - suddenly waves of newly freed black people wanted jobs. And there was downward pressure on wages.

And when the black men who worked on the piers formed their own local, the white unions rejected working with them, blaming the black men for lowering wages.

Now a little later, less than a decade later, just to kind of show how complicated the union-race relationship could be, these same dock workers would unify together and eventually integrate their unions when they realized that working together would provide them all better wages than being divided would.

There are stories similar to this all through the history of industrial labor, both with and without union involvement and situations like this were taken advantage of by the capitalist owners and industrialists.

These men would use racial resentments to drive perpetual, and often violent wedges between white workers and black. And the same sorts of wedges would be hammered home between native white workers and immigrant white workers as well, by the way… It was a prime tactic of industry and factory owners - to divide workers by status

Now there is a part of a work by WEB Du Bois which highlights another way that this sort of divide was perpetuated by white workers with what Du Bois called the “psychological wage” of segregation and racist work conditions.

So if you’ll pardon a somewhat lengthy quote here… this is from “Black Reconstruction in America” by Du Bois, a book which all should read by the way…

"It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown to them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule."

So even tho the white workers received low wages… at least they werent black.

And this was something the capitalists AND the union heads and organizers glommed onto, this psychological wage idea.

Unions would even support racist immigration laws, most famously stumping for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924, the second of these effectively throttled nearly all immigration from the eastern hemisphere. A move promoted by racial fears.

Not all unions were racist though. Most famously were the IWW, the industrial workers of the world. And others were not -explicitly- racist, though their own policies essentially prevented blacks and asians in particular from joining. Basically a sort of poll tax or poll test - ways to keep out non-whites without actually saying it out loud. 

One of the earliest large unions in the US was the Knights of Labor, a group which aimed to organize across all racial and gender lines - but yet suppoorted the chinese exclusion act while the San Francisco chapter likened the chinese to animals in one of its newsletters.

As we can probably guess, truly integrated unions like the IWW were very much a  rare thing before the 20th century and very much uncommon until post 1932 when the Wagner Act passed, but especially post world war 2.

It was really after the civil rights act when unions truly began to shed the last of their overtly discriminatory ways and include minorites and women in them across the board.

And this is where we kind of hit the modern day and will discuss how and why unions help defeat racism.

Ok, so I’m gonna assume that we all know what a union is, just to save some time here, and skip to the good part.

The major basic building block here is that Unions work better when more people, when a higher percentage of people, in a particular sector are organized. 

To do this, especially in racially diverse industries, sectors, or workplaces, requires union leaders and organizers to recruit workers of color to achieve the sorts of sector majorities that they need to be effective.

And once these various groups have been organized together, there is an ideological and a strategic incentive to lower racial resentment amongst its members to keep the union happy, healthy, and growing… not to mention willing to work together to negotiate, vote, and even strike if necessary.

Now on the other side of that is the more every day, more real reasons from a more direct workers perspective.

And these might seem incredibly obvious to some of us but I hope it kind of triggers a little lightbulb in the rest of the listeners out there…

Unions help promote something as simple as people of different backgrounds working together. This could be racial background, or cultural background, or even class background as we talk about it in the US - we have people from poor families working with more well off families and so on. It also includes geographic stuff too. Suburbanites working with inner city folks and so on.

In a related note, I grew up in the sort of stereotypical suburban caucasian land that everyones heard of before. Sort of a slightly dirtier, less utopian beaver cleaver land.

My first ever job was working in an inner city scrap metal yard.

Lemme tell you something, man… few things in life are as eye opening to the suburban child as swinging sledgehammers to bust cast iron in a line with heroin users, felons, roughnecks, goons, and just all in all good god damn people who would never end up having the way out that I ended up having.

Nothing… nothing at all, nothing in my 45 years of life has ever come even close to making me a better human being, a less judgemental person, or a more empathic person than working with that most diverse group of people that I;ve ever been around. 

Except maybe going drinking with them all after work when I was old enough to.

People like to say that hard work makes you a better person, but I don’t necessarily think that’s really true. When I was stacking car batteries, or sorting brass fixtures, or cleaning sewers, or swinging that sledgehammer, it wasn;t the work that made me a better man - it was talking to the people around me and hearing their stories and sharing my own. 

For me it wasn’t really a race thing, it was more a socioeconomic and culture thing. I had pre conceived notions and judgments before I worked in this scrap yard and none of them lasted to the end of the 2 years I worked there.

Too much time spent with too many good people from differing backgrounds knocked it all out of me. 

And this is where unions shine because while work forces us to work in the same PLACE,  unions get us to work TOGETHER. unions make make whatever bonds might form at work even stronger.

As ab example you may have heard about the Tesla plants where all the black workers were sent to work in one corner of the building? And the white workers and bosses called that section the plantation - and even worse stuff I won;t repeat here? And how the black workers never ate or hung out with the white workers?

That’;s the sort of thing collective action can break up. I mean… they had a place in the plant called the plantation where they put all the black workers and none of the workers had any say in this or any way to fix it. A union would have given them a path.

The very structure and impact of unionization on a workplace can help get workers integrated together and just being involved with a union creates socialization with meetings, speeches, votes and so on.

It mobilizes workers to votes in union elections and to share political information, both for within the workplace and right up to national elections.

And that’s not even to mention the all important negotiations for new contracts and work rules.

When you combine all of this, unions are pretty unique. 

They have a structure which supports the breaking down of racism and that structure is then applied to our workplaces - a place which essentially forces us to socialize and is perhaps the place most of us socialize the most.

We might live in a white neighborhood and attend a white church and a mostly white social club and have mostly white friends  - and just swap in black or latino there or rich or poor - but then we go to work with those black and latino and asian people and we interact.

What unions do is help us to put our prejudices aside and understand that our collective interests are linked together. Then we talk and debate and vote on collective decisions over leadership and rules and yes even our pay.

It’s a cooperation thats fundamental and requires active participation. 

People of all different stripes working together at work and then unifying outside of work to secure victories of a common interest.

This isn’t, of course, to say that all unions are perfect, or that all union members simply leave race at the door. Working closely together does not automatically lessen racial tensions. We can actually look at the United States military here where studies have shown that racism actually increases for those who sign up to fight oil wars in other countries.

Yeah, the brotherhood of the military makes young people more racist by the time they leave.

Maybe it’s the particula job they do, or maybe it’s the complete lack of collective decision making and brutal hierarchy, but just simply working together is obviously not a panacea.

And police are an example of the idea that simply being unionized isn’t the be all, end all of racial hegemony. I’m not even going to go into detail here, but cops are garbage and policing tends to exacerbate the racism of those who make a career of it.

And cop unions shouldn;t exist, by the way. Just to be clear.

Labor unions create a culture of multiracial solidarity - at least at work and within the union - again, I don;t want to ramonaticize this or go overboard - but they go beyond that as well. They even reward it. The more cooperative and unified a union is, the greater the rewards - Solidarity forever, right?

The othe rinteresting thing here is that integration at work, in neighborhoods, and the home, and having access to decision making and the politics of our work increase cooperation and breaks down barriers.

But even beyond that is the fact that all of these interactions - the working next to each other, sharing of lunch rooms at work, going to union meetings, and voting  - it’s the sharing of and active participation in various social practices and cultural affects that are facilitated by the very nature of labor unions that create even deeper bonds.

Ya add all that up, and factor in that workplaces are the single biggest point of contact and cooperation and by there very nature encourage common goals and collective actions - then it seems obvious that simple contact in and around work should reduce biases.

And hundreds of studies show that it does.

Work, and the unions that organize them, are sites and organizations which bring people into lengthy contact with people of different demographic backgrounds, race, social, economic, and so on, on a daily basis.

But a workplace with no union has a much higher danger of becoming like those racist shithole Tesla factories that apartheid baby Elon Musk runs in Arzona where black workers are relegated to the quote/unquote plantation while whitw workers are treated better.

Those Tesla workers have no way to challenge the hierarchy of the factory because they are not united, they are kept apart intentionally. In short, Tesla, and Musk, do not want the majority of workers to work together to fight them.

And the majority requires workers of all colors and creeds, not those of a single group.

Unions on the other hand are predicated on having a majority in the workplace, and unifying that majority to work both together and towards a greater goal. 

This then pushes unions to engage with whatever socio economic or political or cultural divisions there are in the workforce and to promote toleration and unity.

And just to touch back on my scrap yard days back when I first started driving a truck for the scrap yard when I was 18 one day I went out to a place that was 30 minutes away. I did my pickup and headed back and my truck started to overheat. I didn’t have a phone and I didn’t have any money so I kind of nursed it back in. It took over anb hour to get back.

When i finally arrived the owner came out and started yelling at me and throwing papers around and screaming about how lazy I was, where was I, I was stealing time, and all that crap. 

And IU didn;t say anything because to be honest I was kind of scared haha. I knew I did my best to get back but now this millionaire asshole is screaming at me and can fire me at a whim and I just got yelled at. I was too sheepish at 18 to argue back.

So I went to the garage and the fellas were like damn you fucked up. Then I told them what happened and the mechanic looked at the truck and saw the hole in the radiator hose. And the 3 guys, really the most influential of all of the workers there, they talked for a bit and then said, “Come with us.”

And they walked into the office, me in tow, and proceeded to yell at the owner of the company and tell him that I had saved the truck, saved the cost of a tow, and that I didn;t deserve being screamed at especially since he never even asked what happened he jkust assumed I was being a bad employee. 

Then they demanded he apologize to me, and he did.

And these were three of the most diverse people that were there. Two of them basdically hated each other and had multiple fist fights in the past.

But when it came down to it, they all came together to help me. The collective group actually had power where the 18 year old kid did not.

Or adult, I guess I was an adult at the time, just not a confident one.

There were also smaller acts of solidarity as well, like how everyone in the breakroom shut up when the boss walked in to get a coffee. And he’d say hello, get his coffee, and leave, and the talking would start.

The message was that this was definitely not a place for bosses and the bosses shouldn;t feel like they belonged. In fact the silence made it deeply uncomfortable. This was a workers only room because workers and bosses are not the same. Another lesson that stuck.

But anyway, that experience always sticks with me. My corworkers saw a wrong done and they unified to fix it, even when they didn’t even like each other. They weren't in a union, but they understood the power they had together.

That’s solidarity in a nutshell.

OK, I feel like I meandered a bit to hopefully make a point with my anecdote, but let me just try to summarize and wrap this up real quick…

Our workplaces are the places we are most often in in which we socialize. And unions actually increase socialization within our workplaces. 

We work shoulder to shoulder with people of diverse backgrounds, and then when organized into a union, we stand shoulder to shoulder with those same people and we fight together in common cause, for common goals.

This creates more, and positive, experiences of inter-group mixing, which undermines prejudice. And this effect tends to be carried home and not just get left either at work or in the union hall.

Again, this isn’t a miracle cure for racists and nazis, but studies do show that uniosn help lower racism acroiss the board…

Unions further influence its members political and social views by exposing people to both relevant knowledge and also knowledge presented under a unified framing, even going so far as to expose the workers of one union to the workers of many other unions.

This influence means that unions themselves, meaning the organizations, tend to support progressive agendas, and the workers themselves tend to support progressive politics more so than non union workers. 

Research has also shown that union-inspired interactions between socially and politcally different people creates interpersonal links which can help promote more tolerance and motivate the parties to moderate their views and move towards each other.

Now I don’t necessarily know that this idea of moving towards each other, which sounds like centirsm to me, is an unalloyed good. I’ve even done an episode on centrism that might interest folks, but 

Over time, there is, in general, no consistent or precisely estimated relationship between union membership and civil rights liberalism. But since 1996, the relationship clearly appears to have trended notably more positive over time. Even in 2016, where significant numbers of white workers turned to Trump, the results remain quite muted given the historical context.

That quore presenred For whatever its worth.

To end this I guess I’ll say this

Unions are very much of their times. They develop historically out of specific political, social, and material conditions. They exist within an amalgam of changing circumstances and are built of constantly fluctuating demographics and are in constant flux and evolution.

All of these antagonistic forces are created and then reinforced and altered by capitalism itself in an effort to break worker solidarity and the unions which help facilitate it.

Right now unions face the forces of so-called right to work states, constant unending political attacks, and new capitalist strategies like creating the gig economy and precarious work and perhaps the most devious new creation of them all the independent contractor.

But we can’t let the ghouls and the dorks win.

Right now our bosses are telling us to put our heads down and do our individual best while also telling us that bob at the next desk is trying to steal our job.

They tell us they'er like family, to not lket anyone get between them and us like a union would.

And then rather than promote integration and democracy, they shove some workers to the plantation and treat others slightly better and profit from the tension between the groups.

They want us to think of each other as competition, not as allies.

A couple episodes back I talked about class in america and how the elites want to divide usinto a dozen economic classes like the middle class and upper class.

But I also explained tha tthe reality is that workers are ALL one class, the working class, the proletariat
Slavery is largely over. Jim Crow is laegely over. Red lining is largely over. And, yes, we still see and feel the effects of this all through society. I won;t say -I- feel it because I’m a white dude. I don’t feel it like others do, buty I know it’s there, I see at least its shadow on the country.

But racism continues to tear into this country. Look at this entire kanye situation as an example and look at how flat out sad it all is. 

And, yes, racism does remain. And racists remain as well. And we need to organize, unionize, work together, and undertake ventures which by their mere existence helps us all see that there are goals out there worth achieving and that the best way to do so is to make cause of common interests no matter our race or creed or culture and, even more importantly, no matter the race, creed, or culture of the worker standing with us on the picket lines as we fight for better wages, better lives, and healthier bodies.

Unions aren’t the only way there, but I would say that the efficacy that they bring into the fight is utterly indispensable.

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