Kathleen Miles is the executive editor of Noema Magazine. She can be reached on Twitter at @mileskathleen.
People of color used to not be allowed to join unions. Now, non-whites could be unions’ only hope of survival.
While unions are still about 70 percent white, that is beginning to change.
Unions lost a record-breaking 547,000 white members in 2012. Meanwhile, membership increased among other races — particularly Latino. In 2012, unions gained 156,000 new Latino members, 82,000 new black members and 45,000 new Asian members, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data sent to The Huffington Post. In comparison, in 2011, Latino membership was flat, unions lost 20,000 Asian members, gained 30,000 new black members and lost 10,000 white members.
One reason for the stark difference between white and non-white membership changes is that the non-white population is increasing at a faster rate. But there were 83,000 new white jobs in 2012 and still a net loss of white union workers. Meanwhile, 11 percent of new Latino jobs were union, 11 percent of new black jobs were union and six percent of new Asian jobs were union.
“A decade ago, unions wanted to keep immigrant workers out on the theory that it would undercut wages and benefits here. But if you can’t beat ‘em, you join ‘em,” William Gould IV, who was chairman of the NLRB under President Bill Clinton and is now a law professor at Stanford University, said. “Now the unions’ goal is to join immigrants and align with their aspirations.”
And a key immigrant aspiration is a pathway to citizenship. Thus, “the unions have switched gears completely and are now advocating for immigration reform,” Gould said. And so far, it’s worked.
Latino workers have proved receptive to organized labor’s message, and demographic changes may also help build unions in other states, such as Nevada and even Texas, according to John Logan, director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.
Gould agrees that Latinos may be particularly receptive to collective organizing. “Latino workers are not imbued with the Horatio Alger story of individualism which has been used against white workers in the United States,” Gould said. Instead, they’re “often involved in institutions with a collective mentality, such as religious institutions.”
One state to watch — because it often sets the precedent for the rest of the country — is California, where the labor chant “Si, se puede” (Yes, we can) seems to be coming true for unions. While national union membership is at a record low of 11 percent (versus 20 percent in 1983), union membership is growing in California. While the nation shed about 400,000 union members in 2012, California signed up about 110,000 new union members, according to BLS data.
One of the main reasons why, in addition to California’s liberal legislature, is Latinos. In the Golden State, union organizing has increasingly involved Latinos for the past two decades, with the help of Latino leaders such as LA County Federation of Labor head Maria Elena Durazo and the late Miguel Contreras.
“Certain labor leaders realized that the vast number of largely Latino immigrant workers could be a game changer for rebuilding the strength of unions and improving conditions in low-wage industries,” said Danny Feingold, communications director for the nonprofit Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. Mobilizing minorities, he continued, will help “rebuild the middle class” by moving workers out of poverty.
The median weekly earnings of union members in 2012 were $943, compared to $742 for nonunion workers, according to the BLS. While unionized manufacturing workers saw their average weekly wage rise by $36 (to $872) in 2012, their non-union counterparts experienced an average weekly wage increase of just $6 (to $786).
Union workers also had greater access to health insurance, a retirement savings plan, and sick and vacation leave. Latino workers in California have begun to enjoy some of these benefits as more sectors become unionized, including janitors and security guards, car wash workers, hotel workers, port trucking workers, and nursing home and home health care workers.
Gould argues that if Latinos see unions as not just advocating for better working conditions but also for immigration reform that Latinos could become a louder voice against anti-union legislation such as recent laws passed in Wisconsin and Michigan.
“The unions have to find a way to reach Latino workers in other states besides California, because the demographics are changing there too,” Gould said. “And we’ve seen nationally that Latinos can affect the political landscape as never before.”