Affirmative action = class solidarity

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The election to the presidency of a man who stoked the fires of racial resentment and misogyny sparked protests by thousands in cities across the U.S. Now working people need to plan the next steps in stopping a potential right-wing dystopia.

High on the list should be a drive to restore affirmative action, one of the right’s favorite punching bags. Bigots say that these programs are the cause of white workers’ economic woes. In reality, affirmative action is not only one of the best ways to overcome discrimination. It builds class solidarity by attacking destructive divisions along race and gender lines, that serve to keep all working folks under the bosses’ thumbs.

Anti-discrimination plans have taken a drubbing in the courts and at the ballot box. It is past time that labor lead a spirited fight to restore affirmative action, connecting it to other issues like public jobs programs and the right to organize. It may be hard, but the working class unity forged will be crucial in the struggle for a better future for all toilers.

Injustice by the numbers. Many women and workers of color know that too many doors remain closed to them, and the stats bear them out. To this day, the highest percentage of women in any type of construction job is in the sheet metal trades — at a measly 4.5 percent! The wages of Black workers are further behind those of white men than they were in 1979. Black men earn 22 percent less, and Black women 34.2 percent less.

In education, a 2012 University of Michigan study analyzing the effects of affirmative action bans in five states found that enrollment of students of color in graduate studies, where they had always been underrepresented, declined an additional 12 percent on average. There was a 26 percent decline in engineering.

Those who claim that affirmative action is no longer needed either do not understand the reality, or are deliberately ignoring it.

An inspiring history. The programs that opened up employment and educational opportunities to women and people of color came on the heels of the Civil Rights movement.

One of the wrecking balls taken to the walls of exclusion was the effort that began in 1974 to get women into the electrical trades at the public electrical utility in Seattle. A multi-racial cohort of ten women faced an uphill battle. At one point most were fired, but they stuck together and won their jobs back.

One of these pioneering tradeswomen, Megan Cornish, describes the importance of building solidarity, “When we women were breaking into the electrical trade at Seattle City Light, it was the men of color, especially the Black men, who were our lifeline. They gave us support when few others did. That collaboration made for a lasting bond of solidarity and led to better relations in the union overall.”

For decades, affirmative action has provided access to good jobs in public employment to disenfranchised workers. In fact, the public workforce is far more diverse than the private sector.

This integrated workforce is less vulnerable to the divide-and-conquer tactics so preferred by employers. This is one reason that their unionization rate is five times the rate for private sector workers. And since the multi-hued public workers are more representative of the communities that they serve, they naturally connect their struggle to defend social services with the working folks who need them. The result — a much-needed infusion of militancy into the labor movement.

Going on the offensive. For far too long supporters of plans to counter job bias have been on the defensive. One of their opponents’ weapons of choice has been the myth that these plans lead to unqualified people getting jobs over worthy white applicants. But this has never been the case. Truth be told, women and workers of color who get their foot in the door have always had to be twice as good just to be judged the same.

And it is nonsense to imply that white males have been disenfranchised in the process. They are still by far the highest wage earners. Also, many have been able to get decent jobs because equal opportunity provisions forced employers to develop objective job criteria for hiring, which put to rest the nepotism that traditionally excluded even most white males.

The good news is that some principled activists have begun the fight to restore affirmative action. In Washington state, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) has pushed the state’s labor council to organize to repeal the 1998 initiative that did away with discrimination remedies. Puget Sound CBTU Chapter President Kevin Allen lays out the reason for launching the campaign: “Affirmative Action has proven to be an effective tool to ‘level the playing field’ for People of Color who are often left out due to institutional and structural racism still embedded into the fabric of America. CBTU is committed to restore Affirmative Action where it has been rolled back.”

This effort is part of the national initiative, A Future for Workers: A Contribution from Black Laborby the Black Labor Collaborative, which CBTU is part of. The plan puts forth solutions that could provide quality education and good jobs for all, and addresses environmental degradation and the horrors of the prison industrial complex. An approach that lifts up all workers and their communities counters the “special privileges” red herring. And it is just what a labor movement in need of revitalization should get cracking on.

Fairness, plain and simple. It must be said that for centuries there has been an affirmative action program in place for white males. Is it not reasonable to bend the stick the other way, so that those who have been long excluded can have access to just opportunities?

The fairness argument can best be made by labor, with its increasingly diverse membership and its educational role in the workplace. But when affirmative action came under fierce attack, labor leadership balked at having difficult conversations on the topic with conservative elements in their own ranks.

Labor must convince all its members, along with the broader working class, that race and gender discrimination are a dagger in the heart of class solidarity. An impassioned fight to restore affirmative action can remove that dagger and help heal the heart.

Published originally in the Freedom Socialist newspaper.