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Unions Are Essential for Eliminating Racism

When black waterfront workers formed a union in 1872 and sought integration or at least alliance with the existing white unions, “We were scoffed at,” a black worker recalled, “and rebuked by white men who work along shore, telling us constantly that the negroes broke the wages down, and it caused all to suffer.”

This racial division and hostility was advantageous to the New Orleans economic elite. The non-cooperation of groups of waterfront workers resulted in a permanent supply of strikebreakers — if the white workers walked out, black workers could be called in to replace them, and vice versa. The dynamic persisted for decades and undermined one union effort after another. By the 1890s, however, it was becoming obvious to many white waterfront workers that cross-racial solidarity would be practically necessary. Much as they had made the decision to strategically oppose slavery, many began to see the wisdom of integrated worker organization.

The result of this dawning awareness was the Triple Alliance, a consortium of three unions consisting of black and white workers alike, who decided to strike in tandem. Together, they shut down the port of New Orleans. Black and white workers across the city joined in, and the usual kinetic movement of the entire city ground to a screeching halt. The strike won significant gains for workers, proving the practical efficacy of cross-racial cooperation. Thereafter, New Orleans unions mandated that black and white workers be assigned to work crews in equal numbers alongside each other, a policy they called “half-and-half.”

This story is of course abridged — for all the details, see Eric Arnesen’s Waterfront Workers of New Orleans: Race, Class, and Politics, 1863–1923 — but in its abbreviated form it illustrates how unions can function as an effective vehicle for racial solidarity and equality.


The question of what impact unions have on racism is a live one. Racism is still a major issue across our society, workers of all races continue to be exploited, and racial division continues to be an obstacle to effective resistance. A new paper titled “Labor Unions and White Racial Politics,” published in the American Journal of Political Science, provides new data affirming that multiracial unions do indeed positively transform white workers’ attitudes about race.

The study, conducted by Paul Frymer of Princeton University and Jacob M. Grumbach of the University of Washington, evaluated white people’s responses to statements that effectively deny the existence of racism —  for example, “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.” They found that white union members are less likely to have racist attitudes than white workers in similar industries who are not in a union, becoming a union member reduces white workers’ racial resentment, and even that formerly being a union member reduces white workers’ racial resentment. That lessening of racial resentment even translates, they write, to increased support for policies that benefit African Americans like affirmative action.

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