Labor’s White Flight: White Racial Attitudes and the Decline of Union Power in the United States
Organized labor has been in decline in the United States for many years. Three primary, overlapping, explanations have been provided for the decline in union density: structural, competitive, and institutional. The bulk of the empirical literature has focused on the effects of globalization on union firms ability to compete with nonunion firms and cheap labor abroad. This research has certainly provided important insight into the role of changing economic systems (and the policies that have allowed for these changes) in union decline, especially the role of foreign direct investment. However, research comparing the American experience with similarly situated industrial countries indicates that other factors beyond simply globalization are at work and that American union decline is partially explained by how local policies and conditions exacerbated the affects of globalization, and actually created specific aspects of globalization that made union organizing more difficult. For example, the legal framework within which unions organize is incredibly hostile to union organizing, and amplifies the effect of global competition on union’s ability to organize. A major theme that appears in the qualitative literature on the development of American labor policy is the changing politics of the white working class and the role of union racism. For example, the role civil rights struggles within unions played in shaping anti-union public policy, and how through massive investment in segregated homeownership, the white working class grew to view itself as homeowners first and workers second, allowing anti-union politicians to capitalize on white working class fears of residential integration to gain power. By measuring the mechanism through which this shift in white working class consciousness occurred, the analysis here hopefully provides insight for union organizers and political strategists as they work to rebuild the labor movement. The research finds evidence that, while there is a positive correlation between union membership and anti-black racial attitudes, this correlation exists only through the positive correlation between income and homeownership and anti-black racial attitudes. While primarily suggesting the need for more research, these findings also suggest that unions should engage in robust anti-racist organizing among their white members.
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