Honoring Black Labor Leaders
By Christian Collins
“Turning a blind eye to our history has not saved us from its consequences.” – Cicely Tyson
Black History Month is a time to reflect on the central role of Black people in shaping this nation. Nowhere is that more evident than the labor movement. A founding tenet of American capitalism and our economy is that Black bodies are worth more than Black minds. This belief is continually demonstrated by the value placed on Black workers and their work. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Black workers risked their lives in essential jobs to keep the country operating. And in doing so faced an increased likelihood of falling victim to COVID-19. Systemic racism and labor market segregation cause Black workers to be disproportionately employed in essential jobs – jobs that don’t provide adequate health care coverage or paid sick leave, exacerbating COVID-19’s risks. Black women in particular have continued to be ignored in the economic recovery from the pandemic, as the dual threats of racism and sexism persist, largely unacknowledged by policymakers.
Black History Month’s reflections are only beneficial if we are honest. Modern America’s economic superpower status has long been attributed to the grit and ingenuity of white European settlers building the nation from the ground up, but this narrative is at best a half-truth. Black labor is the cornerstone of U.S. global hegemony. From the slaves who were brought to the shores of Virginia in 1619, through the industrialization of the United States powered by Black workers and families fleeing the South, and by the continued reliance on mass incarceration to produce a cheap workforce for corporations and governments to exploit, the commodification of Black bodies has been the American capitalist formula for economic profit.
Historically, Black labor has influenced the nation’s economy and American democracy. Organized Black workers were early vehicles for widespread anti-discrimination efforts, as industries that heavily relied on Black workers provided a prime opportunity to collectively negotiate for better compensation and working conditions. Among the most prominent examples was the Colored National Labor Union, formed in 1869 as a national coalition of Black workers across many industries to improve working conditions, fight discrimination among other trade unions, and advocate for a national public education system that provided equal opportunity to Black Americans. This legacy continued into the civil rights era, as labor advocates like Dorothy Lee Bolden were pivotal in using organizing for registering Black voters and forming influential political blocs that politicians could no longer ignore.
Following is a small sampling of Black labor leaders and advocates who had a profound impact. Their stories were, and continue to be, inspiring for many from all walks of life.
These figures all had profound impacts on Black Americans’ constant struggle to have their labor fully respected and fairly compensated, but there’s still much work to do. Black women are paid only 64 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, a figure that’s even lower in many states employing the most Black women. Despite being more likely to be unionized than other racial groups of workers, Black households still face a significant income gap compared to white households. Black men continue to experience an unemployment rate double that of white men, and those who gain employment are more likely to work in lower-wage occupations.
For Black History Month, the best way to honor historical figures who have preceded us and continue to walk among us is to help realize the anti-racist change they championed. Our collective action—as policymakers, researchers, advocates, and community members—is necessary to finally overcome the legacy of anti-Blackness that continues plaguing all facets of this country. Black workers’ struggle for racial equality doesn’t just benefit the Black community, it benefits everyone. And the lives and legacies of those we honor every February will continue to inspire their successors from all segments of society.
“Freedom is never given; it is won.” – A. Philip Randolph
1. Isaac Myers: Pioneer of the African-American Trade Union Movement | American Postal Workers Union (apwu.org)
2. Mary McLeod Bethune (womenshistory.org)
3. A Woman’s Place Is in…Her Union Leadership | NEA
4. A. Philip Randolph – Biography, Activism & March on Washington – HISTORY
6. Bayard Rustin | AFL-CIO (aflcio.org)
8. The Ballplayer Who Fought for Free Agency | The Nation
9. Amazon fired Chris Smalls. Now the ALU leader is the face of a new worker movement. – Vox