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Jennifer Dorning is president of the Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.
The events of the past year, from the many high-profile police killings of Black people to the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color, drive home the need for all of us to play a more active role to combat racial inequity and white supremacy. And one venue where real change can occur is in the workplace.
As the president of the Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO, I lead a coalition of 24 national unions representing more than 4 million professionals. Through bargaining for pay, benefits and working conditions, our affiliates’ members have created sustainable, family-supporting careers in their industries. While these workplace improvements have raised standards for all professionals, employees of color tend to see some of the greatest gains from union membership.
Black union members earn 26 percent higher wages and are more likely than employees of any other race to be union members. Both of these factors help to narrow the wage gap between Black and white employees. Additionally, while union employees do better than their non-union counterparts within every racial group, union membership impacts the accumulation of wealth more for nonwhite families than for white families. Nonwhite union families have almost five times the median wealth as their non-union counterparts.
The advantages of union membership for people of color are not limited to better pay. Many union professionals have prioritized negotiating for articles and provisions that intentionally advance racial equity in the workplace. For digital journalists like those at The Intercept and Vox who recognized that a lack of diversity is a problem in their industry, this has meant securing diversity in hiring provisions that require a certain number of job candidates from underrepresented groups to advance in the hiring process.
Professionals also use their unions to negotiate for strong anti-harassment and anti-discrimination language, loan repayment programs and other tools to increase equity. My organization’s toolkit on bargaining for racial equity provides even more examples of the different ways that union contracts can address inequities, like pay transparency provisions.
But organizing new unions is not easy. As demonstrated recently at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, employers will go to great lengths to intimidate their employees. So-called “right to work” laws in many states deliberately weaken the ability of unions to organize and represent their members.
These laws were originally conceived as a way to prevent Black and white workers from joining together, and continue to have a negative impact on Black workers — whether or not they are union members. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, currently pending in the U.S. Senate, would repeal these laws and remove other roadblocks to forming unions, empowering working people of all races to join together to build better workplaces.
Those of us who want to continue working to build a more just society cannot leave our values at the door when we go to work. Unions are proven to improve pay and working conditions for everyone in the workplace, but especially for workers of color.
If you want to do your part to create equity in the workplace, you can start by talking to your coworkers about organizing a union.