In a speech delivered last month at the Justice Department, Attorney General Eric Holder described America as "a nation of cowards" when it came to the subject of race. "If we're going to ever make progress," he explained, "we're going to have to have the guts, we have to have the determination, to be honest with each other."Many road blocks to the future success of black Americans. If it wasn't the larger society it was organized labor. It took good businessmen to hire these workers, but meddling politicians.
Last week in Miami, Vice President Joe Biden squandered a perfect opportunity to follow Holder's advice. Speaking before the annual convention of the AFL-CIO, Biden repeatedly flattered the powerful labor organization, yet made no mention of the American Federation of Labor's notoriously racist past. For more than half a century, AFL unions routinely banned African Americans from membership, segregated the few blacks they did admit into inferior Jim Crow locals, and lobbied state and federal officials for discriminatory legal privileges. When the federal government began passing pro-union legislation during the 1930s, it was racist outfits like the AFL that reaped the benefits.
During the early decades of the 20th century, black economic success typically occurred in spite of organized labor—not because of it. As African Americans migrated from the rural South to the industrial North, they frequently secured jobs by working for lower wages than unionized whites or by serving as strikebreakers—"scabs"—when discriminatory white unions walked the picket line. Blacks gained a foothold in Chicago's massive meatpacking industry in 1894, for example, when unionized butchers joined the striking American Railway Union, a whites-only outfit led by future Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs.
New Deal labor laws had a similar impact. The National Industrial Recovery Act and its accompanying National Recovery Administration (NRA), in effect from 1933 until the Supreme Court unanimously struck them down in 1935, established the practice of mandatory collective bargaining, whereby a union selected by a majority of employees became the exclusive representative of all employees. Since African Americans were barred from most unions, the law drastically limited their economic options.
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