Abstract

Conventional wisdom states 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. 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, this article aims 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, the article anchors its 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. The article complements 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, this account is largely optimistic, though the article emphasizes that there is still work for the labor movement to do.