Posted on May 15, 2019
The Significance of Four Centuries of Black Labor
Until the mid-20th century, the vast majority of black men, women, and to some extent children added to the wealth, culture, and politics of the nation as general laborers, household, and domestic service workers. This portrait of the black working class changed dramatically during the 20th century when the Black Freedom Movement expanded the scope of American democracy and created a new equal opportunity regime. But the late 20th-century decline of the manufacturing sector and the intensification of grassroots white resistance to affirmative action programs reinforced the color line in the emerging post-industrial economy. Thus, as the 21st century got underway, most poor and working-class blacks and their children occupied the bottom rungs of the evolving global workforce.
Black working people are by no means occupying the bottom rungs of today’s evolving economy quietly. Labor organizing remains one strategy for improving working conditions. As manufacturing and other jobs dissipated, the balance of power within the labor movement shifted from the old blue-collar industrial, construction, and transport unions to new service and public sector unions, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and the American Postal Workers Union. In 2007, thirteen local domestic workers’ organizations formed the National Domestic Workers Alliance and launched a spirited campaign to establish national and “global standards for household labor.”
Many labor activists see African Americans as the most promising prospects for rebuilding a vibrant labor movement in the 21st century. But the obstacles to a unified labor movement are exceedingly strong: some African American activists and their nonwhite allies, as well as women from a variety of ethnic and racial groups, have despaired at building alliances with white male workers. Alicia Garza, a pioneer in the development of the BLM as well as an organizer for the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance, reported “doing a lot of work to build bridges between other movements and communities caught in the crosshairs of Trump’s agenda… It’s a real opportunity for us to build a movement of movements… Our futures are tied to each other.”