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Unions brought black Americans into the middle class. They’re now being decimated

Recent efforts to undercut the US labor movement will disproportionately affect African Americans

By Caleb Gayle | The Guardian | August 14, 2018


Cleophus Smith started working at the Memphis, Tennessee, sanitation department in 1967. He had no union, six children and made the equivalent of about $8.50 per hour. Ozell Ueal started working at the same sanitation department seven years prior for roughly the same pay.

On 1 February 1968, during a violent rainstorm, two fellow sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were killed when heavy rain caused barrels of heavy garbage to crush them. Their deaths catalyzed what would become one of the most important civil rights and labor rights campaigns in US history, ending 12 days after Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated.

The deaths of Cole and Walker, coupled with generally poor working conditions and inadequate pay, compelled Smith, Ueal and a host of others to join a protest led by TO Jones, a sanitation worker-turned-organizer. They armed themselves with signs bearing the familiar phrase of the civil rights struggle: “I am a man.”

Only a strike, they believed, would be economically powerful enough to force the city government to negotiate. But striking would be a risky and at times dangerous show of courage. It meant sacrificing already anemic pay for the duration of the strike; facing the wrath of the mayor, Henry Loeb, who had declared the strike illegal; and enduring violent suppression by a racist and unflinching police force.

National Guard troops stand with bayonets fixed as African-American sanitation workers march wearing placards reading “I AM A MAN.”

National guard troops stand with bayonets fixed as African American sanitation workers march wearing placards reading ‘I am a man’.  Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

The sanitation workers went on strike anyway. With that decision, two key African American movements that had been moving in parallel for decades became fatefully intertwined: the fight for labor rights and the fight for civil rights.

Fifty years later, Cleophus “Cleo” Smith, 76, and Ozell Ueal, 79, still remember the strike as if it were yesterday. For 65 days, they and hundreds of other black sanitation workers marched – “every day, for hours”, often while being maced, clubbed or teargassed by police – to demand safer working conditions and fairer pay. Local churches helped feed the workers and their families during the strike.

One particularly bloody day, 28 March 1968, ended with 276 arrests, 60 injuries and the death of a 16-year-old boy, Larry Payne, who came to support the strikers. King was visiting Memphis to support the strike when he was murdered on a motel balcony.

Yet they prevailed. Against all odds, the strike succeeded.

Rev. Cleophus Smith, 17 July 2018.

The Reverend Cleophus Smith.  Photograph: Scott Eisen for the Guardian

“I got promoted to become a truck driver,” said Ueal, then “a crew chief”.

Smith has a winsome squint and a smile that belies his sharp wit, perhaps from the 51 years of working with the sanitation workers that he still counts as co-workers half a century later. His blue pinstripe suit is pressed perfectly, with creases marking each pant pleat. Ueal, who started the same job a few years earlier and has been Smith’s buddy since the 1960s, proudly wore his “I am a man” hat.

“He wouldn’t have gotten that promotion without the strike,” Smith pointed out.

The sanitation workers also achieved unionization through AFSCME Local 1733 and, perhaps most saliently, they get time off for the same type of rainy weather that led to the deaths of Cole and Walker.


Thanks in part to the work of groups like AFSCME Local 1733 – still going strong today – many black workers are now organized in labor unions. They have better pay and fairer treatment, and, as Smith said: “We don’t have to work in the rain any more.”

But the hard-fought gains of the black labor movement may be once again under threat.

On the last Friday of May, Donald Trump signed a series of executive orders that dealt a blow to the ability of federal employees to organize.

The first order now reduces the time to fire “poor performers and employees under suspicion of misconduct”. The second order restricts union officials to using only 25% of their work hours on official time for the union, meaning it can’t be used for lobbying Congress or representing employees who file grievances. The last order empowers all agencies to renegotiate all collective bargaining agreements, under the watchful eye of a new “Labor Relations Working Group”.

Then, on 27 June, the US supreme court ruled that public sector unions can no longer compel employees to pay union dues.

On the surface, these recent developments may seem unremarkable – and outcries from labor may just sound like public sector workers unwilling to let go of a comfortable status quo. But between them they could represent one of the most precise injuries to the progress of people of color in history.

Working, unionised black women, according to the Economic Policy Institute, “are paid 94.9% of what their black male counterparts make”, while non-union black women make “just 91% of their counterparts”.

Ozell Ueal at the 43rd International Convention of the American Federation of State.

Ozell Ueal at the 43rd International Convention of the American Federation of State. Photograph: Scott Eisen for the Guardian

Another study by the Economic Policy Institute shows that “unions help raise the wages of women and black and Hispanic workers – whose wages have historically lagged behind those of white men … Black and Hispanic workers get a larger boost from unionization than their white counterparts”.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research showed that black union workers are “13.1 percentage points more likely to have employer-provided health insurance, and 15.4 percentage points more likely to have employer-sponsored retirement plans”.

And the results are more staggering for black union workers who haven’t completed high school: black union workers in this category benefit from a “wage advantage of 19.6% over their non-union peers, and are 23.4 percentage points and 25.2 percentage points more likely to have health insurance and a retirement plan, respectively”.

For many black Americans, unions have been life-changing ladders to the middle class.


The anti-union “right-to-work” doctrine has been a rallying cry of the American right wing for nearly a century. In fact, long before Trump’s executive orders (or Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s ongoing assault on unions, which he has called an “expensive entitlement”), there was Vance Muse.

Muse is often credited with popularizing the term “right-to-work”. He epitomized big business interests in maintaining segregation during the early 20th century. Both an anti-labor hardliner and a fierce segregationist, Muse proudly told a Senate committee hearing in 1936: “I am a southerner and I am for white supremacy.”

Muse’s affinity for white supremacy influenced his ideas on organized labor. His 1944 Right-to-Work campaign in Arkansas distributed literature warning white Arkansans that “white women and white men will be forced into organizations [labor unions] with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs”.

It was a simple tactic – divide and rule – that served the needs of both white supremacy and big business. By preventing unionization, Muse simultaneously enforced black subjugation and kept both black and white wages down. By the time of his death in 1950, 12 southern states had passed right-to-work laws.

Wisconsin state troopers remove a protestor from the state Capitol, 10 March 2011. The state’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, is a committed foe of unions.

Wisconsin state troopers remove a protester from the state capitol on March 10, 2011.  The state’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, is a committed foe of unions. Photograph: Darren Hauck/Reuters 

In the mid-1950s, Reed Larson, leader of both the National Right to Work Committee and National Right to Work Legal Foundation, picked up where Muse left off – making anti-labor and racist ideas comfortable bedfellows. Larson was an early member of the John Birch Society, which opposed the civil rights movement and often claimed that desegregation was a communist plot.

John-Paul Ferguson, expert in labor relations and McGill University assistant professor, says: “We’ve gotten used to thinking that there’s a meaningful difference between disparate racial impact and intent.” He argues that impact and intent are often closely linked.

“We know that attacking unions has a disparate impact on people of color in the United States,” Ferguson said flatly; right-to-work and Trump’s effort to “reform the civil service” will set back workers of color worst of all.

Brittany Adams, a black female caseworker for the state of Illinois and a member of AFSCME Local 2858, credits her family’s long history in public union jobs with propelling her into the middle class. “If there wasn’t a union, I wouldn’t be middle class. My wages would be lower and my insurance co-pays would be higher.”

In fact, the path to the middle class for many African Americans has come by way of public sector unions. Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), recalled in his upbringing: “You had three ways for the majority of African American folks” in Cleveland, where Saunders grew up, “to move into the middle class”. Many blacks in the middle class were employed “at the post office, or drove the city bus, which my dad did, or worked in the steel or rubber mills”.

Those three jobs, Saunders noted, were all “organized by unions that provided African American families the ability to move up based upon having a seat at the table and being able to negotiate wages and working conditions.” The same goes for Adams; her grandfather held his position at the Chicago Public Transit Authority for 30 years, and her uncles were unionized coalminers or postal workers.


According to Saunders, efforts to curb labor have put a “bullseye on our back”. But these efforts also threaten settled law on matters of race and equality. For example, the Bradley Foundation, which has distributed $30m to 24 conservative organizations to launch legal challenges to public sector unions, also spent large sums to challenge the legality of affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

During the 1990s, investigative reports by the Independent found that the Center for Individual Rights, another “non-profit public interest law organization” and challenger to public unions, enjoyed the support of the Pioneer Fund, an organization that supports “research asserting the genetic superiority of whites”.

These organizations know that enough hits to public unions can cripple the labor movement as a whole. “We [public sector unions] represent about 34.4% of the workforce,” Saunders noted. “The representation of private sector (unions) is about 6.2%. So if they take us out they have mortally wounded the labor movement, not just the public sector.”

Dr Martin Luther King (center) surrounded by leaders of the Memphis sanitation strike.

Martin Luther King surrounded by leaders of the Memphis sanitation strike.  Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archives

But Cleophus Smith is spoiling for a fight regardless of the setbacks. “We are having some of the same issues that we were having in 1968 but the difference is we have the tools to fight with.” He tells people not to call him and Ozell “heroes, but workers”.

It was lobbying Congress that brought Americans an eight-hour day and the guarantee of overtime pay. Or as Adams reminds her anti-union friends: “You can thank unions for your weekend.”

It was the small contributions of middle-income workers across this country that have fueled the fight for more adequate healthcare, fairer pay and more. It was the tireless organizing and striking of people like Cleophus Smith and Ozell Ueal that ensured that my Jamaican grandmothers, young nurse assistants in the 1970s, could walk into SEIU 1199 in New York and get fair redress of workplace grievances. Unionized labor guaranteed their foothold in the middle class, as it did for Smith and Ueal.

Or, as Smith told me: “The reason we are taking the struggle further is because had we not taken the struggle in the first place, you wouldn’t be sitting here.”

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