Roland Martin talked with Professor Dorian Warren about the role of unions in building the black middle class.
MR. MARTIN (VOICEOVER): Professor Dorian Warren studies the role of unions in building the black middle class. We started our conversation in his office at Columbia University in New York, on education.
DR. DORIAN WARREN: That’s right. I think we’re seeing this right now play itself out with the battle between Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, and the Chicago Teachers Union. And the point is we need education reform. Everybody agrees about that. The issue is in what way will we get reform. Will teachers be brought in as partners, or as adversaries? And what we’re seeing in Chicago is Rahm Emanuel thinking of teachers as adversaries.
But the teachers have brought along parents and neighbors and friends who are supporting them and believe in a different kind of process for reforming education. Closing 60 schools, they don’t believe is the right process for fixing what’s wrong with Chicago schools, or schools in any other major city in this country.
MR. MARTIN: I’m glad you brought up what’s happening in Chicago, because I spent six years there, and I looked at what was taking place, African-Americans being locked out of the various construction unions. That is a huge issue.
We had Gene Sperling on “Washington Watch,” and he was talking about folks getting behind the President’s initiative to rebuild America.
I said, “Gene, here’s the problem. You want a[n] African-American to support that, but when you look at the trade unions, they’ve been locking folks out. And so, sure, we can say, ‘Hey, let’s actually pass this,’ but those high-paying jobs – black folks are being locked out. And so you’re getting our political support. We’re not getting the economic support.”
DR. WARREN: That’s right. African-Americans have been a key part of public-sector unions, but when it comes to the building and construction trades, black Americans are continuing to be locked out. So, to give you some numbers, [in] Chicago, about a third of the population: African-American. Members of the building trades: less than 10 percent – less than 10 percent. So, that is a huge problem and, in fact, the President of the United States today could do something about that. He can demand, with the power of executive orders, that all government contractors on all kinds of building projects are union and have programs that actually integrate those unions with African-American workers, who desperately need those jobs.
MR. MARTIN: So, how could that happen?
DR. WARREN: Stroke of a pen.
MR. MARTIN: And so the executive order would say what?
DR. WARREN: It will say on all federal contracts there has to be essentially a program – tied to apprenticeship programs in those unionized jobs that explicitly recruit from certain neighborhoods that are predominantly African-American. Or, they can recruit from certain high-poverty Census tracts. There’re ways to make sure that those jobs go to black people.
MR. MARTIN: So, what you’re saying is that not necessarily a quota, but because you’re using, let’s say, Census data –
DR. WARREN: Yes.
MR. MARTIN: — Census tracts as one of the ways to be able to diversify.
DR. WARREN: Absolutely. So, because we know affirmative action is under attack, and has been for 30 years now, there’re other ways to make sure we can integrate especially really good-paying, construction jobs; and part of that is using poverty, as opposed to race. There’ve been two routes to the middle class for African-Americans. The first was through manufacturing and unions there. The second, arguably more important is essentially the Post Office, the role of public-sector work in creating an African-American middle class, and good public-sector jobs that were union jobs.
Now, what we’re seeing today is an attack by the right on the notion of public employees, the notion of government, and especially public-employee unions; because they know that to defund the Democratic Party means you cut off the role of the labor movement and public-employee unions. So, part of this is a political strategy to demolish their opposition, and part of it is an ideological thing in terms of their belief that unions aren’t a good thing for Americans – and especially for black Americans.
MR. MARTIN: Well, what would you say, though – and this is, to me, I think, one of the issues for African-Americans in the dance. And that is on one hand, you have African-Americans who are critical of Republican governors, with their attacks on unions. At the same time, I’ve heard from civil rights leaders who’ve said they’ve gotten more support from Republican governors on sentencing reform, as opposed to Democrats.
And so how do you explain to African-Americans that it’s not a question of “I’m all in,” but “here’re the different issues. I can be with you, and I can also be against you”?
DR. WARREN: No permanent friends, no permanent enemies.
I think on any issue, we always have to look at what is in the best interest of the community and who is going to achieve that for us. So, we lose leverage when we’re captured by the Democratic Party, as African-Americans. In a two-party system, there should be competition, and we should force the parties to compete for our votes.
MR. MARTIN: Not necessarily a question of two-party. It’s that we go back to, “No. Here’s my issue.”
DR. WARREN: Yes. Yes. And – and whoever wants to address the issue, you can vie for, then, our support come the next election. That should be the ground rule for any kind of political engagement.
MR. MARTIN: Moving forward, where should African-Americans be in recognizing that – guess what – you’re not going to live the glory days of 30 years ago? How should we be preparing ourselves in our community for changes in the labor force and changing what’s happening when it comes to labor unions?
DR. WARREN: We live in, now, a different economy. We live in a low-wage economy. Forty percent of jobs are low-wage jobs. Fifty percent of African-Americans work in low-wage jobs. We need to transform those jobs into good-paying jobs with a career ladder, with benefits, that aren’t part-time.
What’s the best way to do that? How did we do that before? Unionization. And so we need to be smart about picking the good unions that are on our side and to say to employers, “You have a choice, Walmart.” “You have a choice, McDonald’s.” “You have a choice, Wendy’s.” “Are you going to keep with this low-[wage] model, or can we transform these jobs into good-paying jobs?”
And I think, on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, we know he was supporting striking Memphis sanitation workers to create better jobs, to transform those jobs that were dangerous jobs, low-paying jobs. We should honor his legacy by coming together and saying 50 percent of all African-American workers should not have to work in low-wage work. We can do better, and we have strategies to make these good-paying jobs, to create a black middle class again.