“The essence of trade unionism is social uplift. The labor movement has been the haven for the dispossessed, the despised, the neglected, the downtrodden, the poor.”
So said A. Philip Randolph, who organized one of the nation’s oldest unions, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an all-Black group of train attendants shut out of the American Railway Union by Jim Crow, even as they attended mostly to White customers who occupied Pullman sleeping cars.
The brotherhood was a ticket to the middle class for African American men at the time. And unions in general – including the National Organization of Letter Carriers and later the United Auto Workers (UAW) – were a way to attain job security even in changing economic times.
So why are union numbers down? Despite recent positive headlines about Starbucks and Amazon workers demanding representation – and a UAW strike that led to concessions from three of the country’s largest automakers – data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2022 shows that the rate of union membership in America fell to 10.1%, its lowest on record.
Only one in 10 American workers is now in a union, down from nearly one in three during unionization’s heyday in the 1950s. But the absolute number of U.S. workers in unions did grow in 2022 by approximately 200,000, according to NPR, though the number of non-union jobs increased faster.
But let’s not forget what unions have historically done to increase wages and grow the middle class. Workers in that group can still reap benefits from organizing, including increased wages of 10 to 15% percent, notes the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Non-union workers can benefit when their companies compete with unionized ones for labor.
Unions also reduce gaps in race and gender wages: Black men have a particularly high union representation rate at 13%, compared with the average population, at 10%
That would make A. Philip Randolph proud. His porters got to see up close how better-off Whites lived, engendering a desire for equality that eventually benefitted the campaign for civil rights, according to history.com. And they helped grow the next generation by earning wages that could pay for their children’s educations and the opportunities they themselves didn’t have.
Ironically, it was the color of their skin that first opened up opportunities for African American men with the Pullman Company, whose founder believed former slaves would know how best to serve his White customers during long hours for cheap wages, adds history.com.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was not the only union to make significant strides in the early days of representation. Among the oldest unions in the country – according to the www.oldest.org website – are the National Education Association (NEA) for school teachers and support professionals, three million strong and founded in 1857; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, founded in 1891 and now numbering more than 700,000 workers; and the aforementioned National Association of Letter Carriers, which represents the largest share of the nation’s more than 600,000 postal workers.
All truly a “haven” for American workers.