Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was last week as of this post — on January 15th. That same day, Amazon Warehouse workers in Alabama announced that they would begin voting on whether to join a labor union. Do those things sound unrelated to you? Well, they are not. Unions and Dr. King are intertwined. Indeed, King’s assassination in Memphis, TN occurred while in support of a union.

In February 1968, 1,300 Black men from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike. The strike was caused in part by the deaths of two people — Echol Cole and Robert Walker — who were crushed do death in the press of a truck. Throughout February, the strikers sparred with the mayor at the time, Henry Loeb, who refused to recognize them. Peaceful protests were met with mace and tear gas. By March, the demonstrations grew to include non-sanitation workers and larger organizations like Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Dr. King first visited Memphis on March 18, 1968, addressing a crowd of 25,000 labor and civil rights activists. That group was asked to support the strikers. Dr. King noted that “if one black person is down, we are all down.” He returned 10 days later, on March 28, although that visit was interrupted by protests that did turn violent. Dr. King considered not returning, but did, on April 3rd, 1968. That night, he gave his last speech — “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” The speech is perhaps most famous for King’s seeming prediction of his own death. But ultimately, it was a speech in support of organized labor. Dr. King said: “The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers.” Dr. King was killed the next day.

Black Workers and Unions

Dr. King’s attendance at a rally in support of labor showed the importance of unions to Black workers. Around the time of King’s death, around 43 percent of Black men in the private sector were in labor unions. For Black women, the number was around 20 percent. For white men and women, the numbers were lower, at around 35 and 13 percent respectively. So, unions played an outsize role in the lives of Black workers.

Why did Black workers join unions more frequently? After all, Black workers’ disproportionate representation in unions had not always been the case. In 1935, unions included just 1 percent of Black workers. This lack of representation had a simple and disturbing cause. At the time, Black workers often worked in agriculture or domestic labor. These industries were excluded from being unionized. And why were these industries excluded? Because, to get southern congressmen to sign onto legislation supporting unions, industries with many Black workers were excluded.

What changed? One possibility is that Black workers moved into industries that were more amenable to unionization. A second possibility is that Black workers disproportionately joined unions, even when in the same industries as white workers. Black workers would do this if unions offered them some protection from the labor market discrimination these workers face.

Jake Rosenfeld and Meredith Kelykamp find that both factors mattered — Black workers do seem to seek out unions as protection from discrimination. Their paper compares Black workers to white workers with the same education, experience, industry, occupation, and state of residence. The paper finds that Black women’s unionization rate is over two times higher than similar white women. Black men’s unionization rate is 1.5 times higher. So, Black workers in the same industry as white workers are more likely to seek out union jobs.

How Unions Protect Black Workers

What do unions do? Most basically, unions negotiate for pay and benefits. Importantly, unions do not bargain so that Black workers should get paid X and white workers Y. In other words, discrimination is more difficult in a union-covered job. A book by Nelson Lichtenstein offers a quote about this phenomenon: “To African-Americans … long subject to the capricious exercise of an ethnically coded set of discriminations, the very bureaucratization of labor relations inherent in mass unionization had an impact that was liberating in the world of daily work life.”

The word bureaucracy conjures up images of waiting in line at the DMV. But, in the quote above, bureaucracy is presented as a good thing. The bargained for rules and regulations obtained by a union would result in more equal treatment.

Indeed, even a cursory look at the data can illustrate the basic point. According to the BLS, in 2019 the median Black worker in a union made $905 per week. For white workers, the number was higher, at $1,127. That gap is not-trivial, 24.5 percent, potentially reflecting the different education level these workers have even within union jobs. But, in the non-union sector, the numbers are $711 versus $917. That gap is significantly larger, at 29.0 percent. So, Black workers in unions face a smaller wage gap than Black workers who are not in unions. Not to mention the fact that union workers make significantly more than non-union workers across the board.

And, Black workers are still disproportionately likely to be covered by unions. Today, Black private-sector workers are covered by unions about 8.7 percent of the time. The comparable number for white workers is 6.8 percent. But, these numbers are 75 percent lower (!) than when Dr. King gave his speech.

Reversing the Decline of Unions

So, unions disproportionately benefit Black workers. But, unfortunately, this fact also means that the decline of unions has disproportionately hurt Black workers. Reversing the decline in unions would not only improve the wages of all workers, but would also help close the racial wage gap.

Unfortunately, reversing that decline is difficult. Research on the decline of unions has pointed out that the biggest cause of the decline of unions is that most new job growth has occurred in nonunion employment. This fact means that union organizers cannot rely on membership organically increasing, but rather must organize non-union firms. And, as it turns out, the organization rate has only been one fifth as high as it needs to be to maintain union membership.

Thus, efforts like the one at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama are important. And, in the context of Dr. King’s work even more so. Why? Because the warehouse sector is disproportionately comprised of People of Color. According to the Current Population Survey, 22 percent of workers in warehousing are Black and another 33 percent are Hispanic. Those numbers are 11 percent and 18 percent respectively for the rest of the labor market.

So, the Amazon union vote is definitely something to keep an eye on. After all, having a vote is no guarantee of success — workers can always vote against joining the union. Pressures from global competition can certainly give workers pause. The fear of organizing, demanding higher wages, and then being replaced by a worker abroad is real. Then again, if you want one-day delivery from Amazon Prime, those warehouses need to be here in the U.S.A. That fact alone should give the workers some comfort. We should all be rooting for them — I can only imagine that Dr. King would be.

Note: Image at top of post attributable to Wes Candela.