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Unions, People, and Diversity: Building Solidarity Across a Diverse Membership

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[Excerpt] Diversity has been an issue for the labor movement from the earliest days of unions. Unions reflect the combined consciousness of their leaders and members. As a consequence, organized labor's record on diversity is complex and mixed. Different unions at various times have either welcomed diversity as a matter of principle and moved to build inclusive organizations, or have adopted strategies of exclusion in efforts to control the supply of labor. Examples of the latter come easily to mind. From the beginning of wage labor, unionized workers have struck to resist working with those they considered different from themselves-workers of African descent, Chinese workers recruited to build the railroads, immigrants of different nationality or religion, and women. Labor history is marked by riots and mob violence aimed at driving targeted workers from jobs and from communities. Motivated by prejudice, job scarcity, and fear that opening work to lower-paid workers would erode wages, this hostility was reinforced by common employer tactics of recruiting excluded workers as strikebreakers. Even twentieth-century industrial unions, whose memberships tended to be more diverse, tolerated internal workplace job segregation by race, ethnicity and gender. While unionization has been used to enforce bias, the labor movement has also broken barriers and brought diverse people together. Unionization has provided a powerful institutional framework through which diverse communities articulate and negotiate progressive social change. Collective bargaining promotes equality by establishing that wages, seniority, due process and other negotiated provisions of employment apply equally across all represented members, not just to a dominant majority. These traditions, as well, go back to the earliest days of unions. In this article I highlight some current efforts unions are making to address issues of diversity, both in their roles as workplace representatives as well as within the structure and culture of their own organizations. They reflect the best traditions of the past and illustrate an exciting organizational willingness among many unions today to value and respect the diversity of their memberships.

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ILR; Cornell University; unions; diversity; solidarity; membership; labor movement; organized labor; wage; union; prejudice; job; worker


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Required Publisher Statement: From The Diversity Factor, Volume 7, Number 1, Fall 1998. Used with permission. All rights reserved. For more information about The Diversity Factor quarterly journal, please visit its website at

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