How The Civil Rights Movement Divided Unions

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While union advocates take Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a time to discuss the positive influence the labor movement had on civil rights, others note not all unions were on the right side of history.

Labor Secretary Tom Perez argued in an opinion piece Monday that labor unions in the 1960s were a pivotal part of the Civil Rights Movement. This is true says Charles Butler, a member of the Project 21 national advisory council, but while some unions like the United Auto Workers and the Negro American Labor Council helped fight for equality, many others did not.

“Union members, from the rank-and-file up to representatives of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, came to march in Selma,” Perez wrote. “Among those locking arms on the Edmund Pettus Bridge was Reuther of the United Auto Workers. It was also Reuther who posted bail after Dr. King’s 1963 arrest in Birmingham.”

“The AFL-CIO was segregated,” Butler noted to The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The AFL-CIO did not support the walk in Washington.”

“They were not at the forefront,” Butler said. “These people can’t take claim for something they didn’t participate in.”

Butler does note that though things have improved among these labor groups, there are still problems.

“Labor in the 70s changed to not representing the workers,” Butler noted. “It’s about greed in my opinion.”

Stacy Swimp, the founder of Revive Alive Missional Ministry, also noted that there was a split among labor unions when it came to civil rights.

“I think there were certain elements of labor that were marginally supportive,” Swimp tells TheDCNF.

“A lot of these labor organizations didn’t hire us but when they did they didn’t support equal wages,” Swimp noted.

“You see, the AFL-CIO was very limited in their support for the Civil Rights Movement,” Swimp continued. Other unions were even worse, “the construction union has always been racist from its inception to today.”

Swimp also details how even today many unions hurt black communities. For instance, many labor unions contribute greatly to traditionally black organizations, but this causes these organizations to advocate for policies that are beneficial to unions and harmful to black workers.

Swimp offered a solution: pass a nationwide right-to-work act to stop forced unionization, repeal The Davis-Bacon Act and outlaw Project Labor Agreements. Swimp notes that the Davis-Bacon Act and the Project Labor Agreements were once used to keep blacks out of work and are now being used to keep many others who are not union members out of work.

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