Labor Unions and Minorities in The United States

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About this sample


Words: 1217 |

Pages: 3|

7 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

Words: 1217|Pages: 3|7 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

Labor unions are a tool for progressive change, or at least in theory. Several workers started to organize and form unions in the late nineteenth century as a way to protest for better working conditions. However, for many minority workers, including women, African Americans, and immigrants, unions did the opposite and were a form of suppression. Unions often excluded these minority members from membership leading to segregated unions and unions that protested against minorities from even working. The purpose of unions was to work to protect and expand the rights of workers, but for many, they were not able to be included in these unions.

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In the late nineteenth century, many workers turned to labor unions as a way to protest for better working conditions as “many industrial workers labored sixty-hour weeks with no pensions, compensation for injuries, or protections against unemployment'. Laborers at the time worked for long hours in dangerous and unprotected environments. As a result, unions were a way of hopefully improving these conditions. However, for many, membership into these unions was prohibited. For example, one notable union, “the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the 1880s, often excluded women (as well as Blacks and many immigrants) from membership outright - until as late as the 1940s”. The AFL was not a small, local labor union. It was a major organization in the United States having over “1,750,000 adult members” at one point (Baker 74). The AFL is a large scale example of the many unions that prohibited minorities, often those that were not white or male, from being a member of a union. Members of unions, white men, were able to have access to the opportunity of creating better working conditions for themselves that equated to better health and financial standings. Some labor unions based membership based on skilled versus unskilled labor, which was ultimately another regulation to keep membership limited to White Americans. Labor organizations kept membership exclusive by having “high dues and membership open only to skilled craftsmen, they developed strong unions by excluding unskilled and low-wage workers” (Friedman 2). Membership was limited to those that had better jobs, resulting in more money that could be used to join these unions. Better opportunities and help were only open to those who already had economic stability, rather than those who worked in unskilled jobs who constantly faced economic instability. However, “‘new immigrants’ and blacks were also less likely to move into skilled occupations than were second- and third-generation immigrants and native whites”. On the surface, limiting membership seemed to be based on job type and financial status. However, it really is another way of suppressing non-whites, since those that worked unskilled jobs were African Americans and immigrants. Not allowing people of color and other immigrants join unions kept them from progressing financially and in job positions. They became stuck and limited to low ranking, low paying jobs as they did not have the opportunity to receive help from these unions that could have allowed better working conditions. However, not all unions at the time limited their membership to only white men.

Certain labor organizations during the late 1800s allowed more people to join, opening up the union to women, people of color, and/or immigrants. One prime example of an organization that opened their union to a wider variety of people included the Knights of Labor which “the Knights were the first group to try to organize unskilled workers as well as skilled, women alongside men, and blacks as well as whites” (Foner 640). The Knights of Labor were very inclusive, allowing membership to almost everyone. While it seems like a step in the right direction: an inclusive organization fighting for better working conditions for everyone, that is not necessarily the case. For this organization and others, “ the Knights of Labor initially took to interracial organizing with enthusiasm, the tensions that emerged in its practice led to the adoption of an awkward agnosticism to the problem of social segregation” (De Leon 11). While minorities were allowed to join, after joining the labor union, incorporation and cooperation between members was not always welcomed. People of color became segregated especially on a local level as “few locals welcomed less-skilled members”. The large organization of the Knights of Labor allowed for the inclusion of almost all people, but in actual local unions, these minorities were not always welcomed. Even if they were included, they remained segregated from the rest of the group making their enrollment in the union rather insignificant for them. The bigger issue of racism and the common practice of segregation become apparent when attempting to have more inclusive unions. Since many white Americans did not want equal civil rights for black people and other people of color, meeting on equal terms for equal labor rights would not be any easier. While labor unions did not include minorities fully or even at all, some laborers organized to directly suppress minorities in another way.

Workers organized together as a way to protest against other working minorities. One instance in 1896, there was “an effort to integrate an Atlanta textile mill prompted a strike and the creation of a union headed by, and composed of white women, who demanded that the Black workers in the mill be fired,” (Branch 77). White workers were so disgusted to have to work together with Black workers, they turned to enacting strikes to attack these Black workers. Those that protested wanted Black workers fired which would cost Black workers their financial income that could help them progress economically in society. Opportunities of African Americans to advance financially and for an increased quality of life as they were constantly oppressed as many wanted them barred in situations like being able to work in the same industry as whites. For example, “white strikers agreed to increase their own hours… By mobilizing to exclude black women, these white working-class women were helping ensure their availability as domestic servants while keeping the good jobs for themselves”. White workers did things like agree to longer hours just to keep black workers working in unwanted jobs. Black workers continued to be limited to servantry type jobs. While labor strikes often called for shorter working hours, some were willing to give that up to segregate African Americans into separate labor industries and feel superiority over them as they worked as domestic servants to often serve Whites. Whites felt a sense of superiority, being the only ones allowed better jobs and deserving of better working conditions.

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Minorities experienced suppression in many aspects of their lives, including their working lives. Unions were a tool used as a way to improve one’s working life. However, for many minorities this was not the case as unions were another way that barred them from reaching equality. Some unions did not allow women, people of color, or some immigrants to join. If they were allowed to join, their admittance was not always accepted. While labor unions called for better working conditions for some, it was sometimes at the expense of other minorities working opportunities. Oppression of minorities in relation to unions is a small glimpse of the bigger issue of racism and the idea of white superiority that exists in America as Whites want to feel supercilious at the expense of others civil rights and equality.  

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Labor Unions And Minorities In The United States. (2022, February 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 24, 2024, from
“Labor Unions And Minorities In The United States.” GradesFixer, 10 Feb. 2022,
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