Black Workers More Likely Than Others to Be in Unions

by Joye Barksdale  |  April 25, 2013

It’s been 45 years since the strike of AFSCME Local 1733 sanitation workers – 1,300 black men in Memphis, Tenn. Today, although collective bargaining rights are under attack throughout the nation, black men are the most heavily unionized workers in the United States.

A study by the University of California, Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education reveals that while overall union density declined in 2012 – even in public-sector unions – a greater proportion of black workers were union members compared to the proportion of non-black workers. Slightly more than 13 percent of all black workers in the United States are in unions, compared with 11 percent of non-black workers. More than 14 percent of black men in the workforce are union members, compared with fewer than 12 percent of non-black men.

The differences in union membership are magnified in the nation’s 10 largest metropolitan areas, such as New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. In those areas, black workers are 42 percent more likely to belong to unions than other workers.

The report’s author, labor policy specialist Steven Pitts, says those numbers could hold potential for future organizing efforts.

“The relatively high proportion of black union members in large metropolitan areas might hold rising importance as the labor movement seeks new ways to improve conditions facing workers in the United States,” Pitts writes in the report Data Brief: Blacks in Unions 2012. “To the extent that blacks are disproportionately members of unions, a pathway to great public policy success might lie in a stronger relationship with black communities and their elected officials.”  

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