Friday, November 5, 2021

Labor & race, then and now

A meeting of the Knights of Labor, 1886
Knights of Labor, 1886

Combatants on both sides of the battle royal among historians over the 1619 Project used one book in particular as a weapon against the other side. (Yes, books are the weapon of choice when historians fight.)

Barbara Fields dismissed the Project in large part because the authors failed to consult it. 

Leslie Harris compared the books of 1619 critics Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz unfavorably to this one, as she was discounting their critiques.

The book has also been popular in the Phillips Exeter Academy history department where its arguments are often used (in shortened versions) to explain the origins of slavery and racism in the American colonies.

American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, by Edmund Morgan, appeared in 1975, and unlike the work of Wood and Wilentz, according to Harris, managed to weave Native Americans and African Americans along with white people into the story of America’s formulation of its democratic principles. And on top of that, it puts the origins of slavery-racism into the context of a struggle between workers and bosses in a way that sheds light on the way that labor has been managed in America ever since.

At the risk of oversimplification: Morgan argues that slavery emerged from the need of Virginia tobacco planters for a reliable source of cheap labor at a time when their mostly white workers were becoming scarce and increasingly unruly—most notably during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. As the supply of white labor drawn from England's poor had begun to dry up at mid-century, planters started to import Africans, an increasingly more cost-effective source of labor. By the time of Bacon’s Rebellion, the Virginia legislature had already begun to plant an ideology of anti-Black racism in a series labor laws. By elevating the status of poor whites and degrading their Black fellow-workers, these laws embedded racism deep into the American psyche by making it seem like a necessary condition for white status and thus tamed the unruly working class and kept it divided, weak and unable to challenge planter hegemony.

Teachers who want their students to understand the origins of racism in slavery (as opposed to the origins of slavery in racism*) would do well to give their students a list of the slave laws adopted by the Virginia legislature from 1660 to 1705. It is a vivid illustration of how racism was engineered by laws that connected white status to Black degradation while enforcing the physical separation of the races.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there.  The next 400 years has seen a seesaw battle between those who want to end that labor system and others who want to maintain it or adapt it to changing circumstances:  The Union v. the Confederacy; the 14th Amendment v. Jim Crow; the Wagner Act v. Taft-Hartley.  

That struggle continues and if there’s any point in studying history, it’s to help us understand the world we live in now—and how to make it better. So if racism originated in a conflict between employers and labor, it would make sense to look at racism in the context of labor relations today.  

As it happens, American workers are getting both scarce and unruly again, as I write. Since April, we’ve been living through a “Great Resignation,” according to the pundits, because workers are refusing to take or return post-pandemic to low-paying jobs. Then this fall, we entered “Strike-tober,” in which workers who do have jobs stopped working to demand better pay and working conditions.

Labor advocates are hopeful that the decades-long decline in pay and the status of American workers can be reversed by workers with more leverage. But history suggests it’s not likely. Since Virginia when worker scarcity led to slavery, American workers have only really gotten the upper hand in management-labor conflict once, during and for a brief time after the Great Depression and World War II.

Beginning with the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, management struck back, regaining the edge sometime in the 1970s.  As labor becomes more assertive now, how will management maintain their advantage?

Here’s one method. During a unionization drive at a bottling plant in New Jersey in 2020, the company hired a “union avoidance” consultant who specializes in “bilingual consulting”—a tactic devised to bust unions in workplaces with a lot of immigrant workers. With wry irony, union organizers refer to the tactic as “intersectional union-busting” and “culturally-competent union busting,” applying terms used by diversity consultants who run antiracism workshops at schools and workplaces.

Since the 17th century tobacco farmers came up with it, the most effect management tactic to defeat labor has involved some variation of “divide-and-conquer.” But things are more complicated now.

Anti-union consulting is a multi-million-dollar industry. It’s estimated that American employers spend $340 million a year on such services. US law allows companies to force workers who are considering a union vote to sit for hours in captive-audience meetings and listen to the company’s anti-union pitch. One employee who encountered the intersectional union-busting strategy said the consultant “divided us according to two language groups, and with each group they tried a different tack.”

An investigative report by In These Times unearthed eight hours of recordings of mandatory company meetings in the six weeks leading up to a union-certification election. According to the reporter who listened to the tapes they reveal “an especially insidious union-busting strategy: exploiting ethnic and linguistic differences to sow doubt and confusion among immigrant workers.”

That’s reminiscent of the “affinity groups” my own employer puts us into for antiracism work.  It’s a common practice in diversity training. Imagine! Using the tools of antiracism to divide workers against each other.

Given the seemingly limitless resources of companies to fight unions—and unions’ declining strength—it's hard to imagine that many efforts to unite workers and win union certification votes can succeed in the face of such tactics.

That’s too bad, because unions may be one of the more effective antiracism weapons. Not only did the rise of union membership lead to the most significant increase in Black income in the middle of the 20th century, but the process of unionization has the effect of bridging the racial divide at work and perhaps of reducing racism—it subverts the divide-and-conquer strategy.

In the United Autoworkers Union’s failed effort to organize workers in a Nissan plant in Mississippi, Sanchioni Butler, a Black woman who was the UAW’s lead organizer, came to believe that

unions are one of the most effective ways to unite Black and white workers in Mississippi—not in a magical sense of making centuries of racism disappear, but in a practical sense of being virtually the only institution in the South capable of making white and Black people work for a shared purpose despite anti-Black racism. Butler says she saw suspicion and resentment between Nissan workers of different races melt away as she talked with them about their shared suffering due to high healthcare costs and job injuries. “At the end of the day, everybody was being mistreated,” Butler says. “They have their own ‘aha’ moment: ‘I didn’t know you went through that. I went through the exact same thing’” (from In These Times).
Butler’s observations bolster the arguments of researchers who have found that the most effective way to reduce white racism is not to divide people into “affinity groups” based on skin color, but to foster “inter-group contact,” putting them together in non-hierarchical groups working toward a shared goal.

One debate that historians continue to have about the process of dividing and conquering workers in colonial Virginia is over the degree to which planters developed the new racialized labor system on purpose. Morgan suggests they stumbled on it, but others assert that they were very much aware of what they were doing: “One does not simply wake up one morning in a slave society. Building such an interlocking economic, legal, and cultural institution takes a determined, conscious effort.”

Whatever the case for 17th-century tobacco planters it seems clear that today, employers are knowingly pursuing a divide-and-conquer strategy when they divide their workers into groups based on race or gender or other identity categories and get them to focus on microaggresions between workers rather than wages and working conditions that affect every worker. And while slavery or indenture is no longer an option, employers do seem to have molded the laws to enable other divide-and-conquer strategies. The most effect of these was “right-to-work,” which allows workers to opt out of paying dues to unions that are required to represent them, turning dues-paying union members against free-riding co-workers. But the most successful divide-and-conquer strategy of all has been to pit domestic workers against poor people in undeveloped countries via the threat of offshoring—a threat that Nissan wielded before the certification vote.

As we think about the best way to teach antiracism in US history classes, it makes sense explain the connection between racism and work in the origins of slavery and the ongoing struggle between the perpetuation of racism and the forces seeking to dismantle it. The struggle pops up along the way in numerous places—in the attempts of the Knights of Labor, for example, to organize Black and white labor, and in the Civil Rights movements of the 20th century.

The decline of labor began in large part with the failure of Operation Dixie, the CIO’s attempt to organize workers in the states of the former Confederacy.  “Operation Dixie failed largely due to Jim Crow laws and the deep-seated racial strife in the South which made it difficult for black workers and poor whites to engage cooperatively for successful union organization.” 

The chief organizers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, were two labor leaders, A. Philip Randolph and his close ally Bayard Rustin. Walter Reuther’s Union of American Autoworkers provided essential funding for the event, hired chartered buses to ferry protesters to Washington, printed the placards carried by marchers, and set up the sound system that broadcast Martin Luther King’s famous speech across the mall. Reuther was the only white man to speak at the event.  The UAW lobbied Congress to support civil rights legislation and King, meanwhile, spoke often at labor meetings (I assign his 1965 address to the AFL-CIO in my spring US history course).

But the unions’ key role in past anti-racism movements and thus its potential for supporting such efforts today remain largely invisible to most Americans. As Michael Kazin put it:

Today, even in their weakened condition, unions remain the only institutions in America in which working people of every race routinely act together to improve their lives. But they have no Reuther or King to sing their praises and hardly any labor reporters in the mainstream media to describe and analyze what they do or who have a sense of their historical significance.
What’s true of the mainstream media is true, I assume, of most of the US history taught in the schools. And if Kazin is right, then incorporating more labor history will not only make the course more accurate, it will also serve the cause of antiracism that schools like mine are so eager to advance.


(Go here for a guide, with links, to the essays in my series on teaching anti-racism)

*This passages is a reference to the difference between Morgan, who sees racism as something that developed out of the system of slavery in Virginia, and Winthrop Jordan, who’s also very influential book tends to reverse the chicken-egg sequence: the racism of the English made enslavement of Africans all but inevitable. Morgan’s thesis seems to have more appeal for more historians, who like to push against students’ natural inevitability bias. But a good way to teach the origins of slavery and racism in Virginia would be to teach both interpretations. It would help students makes sense of contemporary conflicts over race. Manning Marable split the difference between Morgan and Jordan when he wrote: “Physical appearance and phenotype were convenient, if not always predictable, measures for isolating the members of the oppressed racial group, the ‘blacks.’” See Race, Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1990, 189-90.

On Nissan, see Hamilton Nolan, “The South is Ripe for Organizing,” In These Times, November 2021, 15-22. And Heather McGhee, The Sum of US: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (New York: One World, 2021), Chapter 5.

On “intersectional union-busting in Wharton, NJ, see Alice Herman, “‘Culturally Competent Union-Busting,” In These Times, November 2021, 28-33.

A brief discussion of Morgan among contemporary historians of early America gives a sense of the book’s importance.

A good summary of Morgan’s argument about the development of slavery and racism in Virginia can be found in American Colonies, by Alan Taylor, a defender of the 1619 Project. Many Exeter history teachers have used an excerpt from Taylor’s book in their unit on the origins of slavery in the colonies. The James Davidson textbook, Experience History, that most PEA teachers used until recently provides an even more concise summary of Morgan’s thesis.

Michael Kazin’s comment appeared in the New Republic on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. 

A note on the state of unions and their future prospects. In the struggles against colonial tobacco planters, black and white workers in Virginia did not have unions, or any sort of legal protection for collective action, so in desperation they took up arms against the government in Bacon’s Rebellion. Today, the power balance is similarly tipped in favor of the employers. In spite of rising level of support for unions among the working class, union membership continues to decline.  Since the 1950s it’s down from 35% of workers to a little over 10% now. Even that statistic doesn’t show the full magnitude of the decline, because in the 50s, the vast majority of unionized workers worked in private industry and today that’s down to 6.3%. Some Democratic Party members support new laws to make it easier for workers to form unions. Joe Biden promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” His platform included a proposal to strengthen unions, and he has thrown his support behind the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which was approved by the House in 2020.  His pro-labor appointees to the National Labor Relations Board also may help tip the balance of workplace power toward workers and enact some parts of the PRO act via the “back door.”  During the voting in the (unsuccessful) Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon warehouse union certification election earlier this year, Biden issued a statement that some labor scholars said was “the most pro-union statement from a president in United States history.”  And yet, warehouse workers, who had been forced to attend weekly “captive audience meetings” to hear the company’s anti-union message, voted overwhelmingly to reject the union.

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