Monday, August 27, 2012

Garden and Leong on So Closely Intertwined: Labor and Racial Solidarity

Gardenc Nancy-leong-fullbodyCharlotte Garden (Seattle) and Nancy Leong (Denver) have just posted on SSRN this new article: So Closely Intertwined: Labor and Racial Solidarity.  

Here is the abstract:

Conventional wisdom tells us that labor unions and people of color are adversaries. Commentators, academics, politicians, and employers across a broad range of ideologies view the two groups’ interests as fundamentally opposed and their relationship as rightfully fraught with tension. For example, commentators assert that unions capture a wage premium that mostly benefits white workers while making it harder for workers of color to find work; that unions deprive workers of color of an effective voice in the workplace; and that unions are interested in workers of color only to the extent that they can showcase them to manufacture the appearance of racial diversity.

Like much conventional wisdom, the narrative that unions and people of color are rivals is flawed. In reality, labor unions and civil rights groups work together to advance a wide array of mutual interests; this work ranges from lobbying all levels of government to protesting working conditions across the country. Moreover, unions improve the lives of both members and non-members of color, from bargaining for better wages and working conditions to providing services like job training and continuing education to under-resourced communities.

Accordingly, we aim to replace the conventional wisdom with a narrative that more accurately describes the occasionally complicated but ultimately hopeful relationship between labor and race. In developing this narrative, we anchor our conclusions in an interdisciplinary literature that includes insights from legal, economic, psychological and sociological scholarly research. This extensive body of scholarship indicates that union membership has significant benefits for workers of color in the form of higher wages and improved benefits, more racially congenial workplaces, and deeper cross-racial understanding. We complement this robust scholarly literature with real-world examples of union success at improving the well-being of workers and communities of color. In contrast to many other commentators, then, our account is largely optimistic, though we emphasize that there is still work for the labor movement to do.

As the title suggests, this really important and timely article paints a largely optimistic (though occasionally complicated) picture of the relationship between labor unions and workers and communities of color. It also discusses the many narratives to the contrary, and some reasons for their persistence even as many unions have dramatically changed their orientation towards people of color.

As Charlotte and Nancy related to me, this new article builds on their past respective prior work -- Nancy's in Racial Capitalism (forthcoming in the Harvard Law Review), and Charlotte's in Labor Values are First Amendment Values (79 Fordham L. Rev. 2617 (2011)).

I have read both of the previous pieces (which were excellent) and this new article is a very original contribution to one of the most important issues today in labor law: how unions and people of color interact in a constructive way to advance their mutual civil rights agenda.  Both groups need and depend on one another.

Needless to say, this is certainly worth a long read. Check it out!


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"Conventional wisdom tells us that labor unions and people of color are adversaries." Seems a bit of a straw man to me...

Posted by: Simon | Aug 27, 2012 6:46:55 AM

Not a straw man argument -- the blue collar printers' unions at the Washington Post and the Government Printing Office were adamantly opposed to women or minorities taking over the well-paid printers' jobs from the white males.

It took a long time, and multiple Title VII lawsuits against the GPO, to get an integrated work force. Unfortunately, the rise of computer typesetting and online printing meant that those jobs were downsized within a few decades.

Posted by: Andy Patterson | Aug 27, 2012 9:05:49 AM

A "critique" based on an abstract seems like a "bit of a straw man to me." Actually clicking on the link that Paul provided reveals that the article includes a substantial discussion of the conventional wisdom referenced. Agree or disagree -- fine -- but let's not be lazy.

Posted by: jr | Aug 27, 2012 9:14:38 AM

This is definitely an important piece, and not at all a straw man, if you know anything about the history and internal politics of labor unions. How many employment cases are there on seniority clauses in collective bargaining agreements and their racial effects? Should make for great reading.

Posted by: Matt Dimick | Aug 27, 2012 9:21:10 AM

This looks like an insightful exploration of one of the many imagined divides asserted to exist between communities of color and the working class/progressive spaces (often conceived of as white). The realities tend to be richer and interlocking. I'm looking forward to reading Nancy and Charlotte's piece.

Posted by: Amna Akbar | Aug 27, 2012 10:47:12 AM

Nancy Leong's scholarship has introduced me--and my students--to great stuff in other areas, like criminal procedure. I look forward to reading this piece.

Posted by: Brooks | Aug 27, 2012 10:51:31 AM

This is spot on. But I think the flip side of this is that conjoined interests can lead to extraordinarily complicated issues of divisiveness, Whenever my class reads Sewell -- the inflammatory racial speech case -- I make a point of telling war stories about just how easy it can be for employers to exploit racial divisions during organizing drives. I've lived it in some very intense scenarios. I also think it is interesting to think about how attitudes about unions seemed to change at the historical moment when many service unions moved to organizing people of color. I have often wondered about the dog whistle character of some aspects of anti-unionism and how it can be linked to anti-democratic and racist impulses. Of course, it will also be interesting to see how all of this may change given the wholesale assault on the previously "safe" enclaves of middle and upper class middle white employment. I saw Krugman's piece on "don't send your kids to school teach them about collective bargaining" as a harbinger of what could (but obviously need not) develop.

Posted by: Michael Duff | Aug 28, 2012 7:54:39 AM

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