America's Racist Labor History

August 31, 2021

The first Monday in September is an annual commemoration of the contribution to society of American workers. President Grover Cleveland established Labor Day as a national holiday in 1894, but Labor Day celebrations in some states started before then.

This is a good time to look around at who is disproportionately represented in low-wage service industries. U.S. Bureau of Labor shares 2020 data on “employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity” (https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.htm).

This report indicates that Hispanic or Latino made up less than 18% of employed persons. The following are some of the occupational categories where they made up more than 30% of the workforce: • agricultural workers • baggage porters, bellhops, and concierges • butchers and other meat, poultry, and fish processing workers • cleaning and maintenance of buildings and grounds • construction laborers • cooks • dishwashers • food processing workers • sewing machine operators

Black or African American are listed as 12% of employed persons. Categories where they make up more than 30% of the workforce include: • bus drivers • correctional officers and jailers • home health aides • nursing assistants • orderlies and psychiatric aides • parking attendants • postal service clerks

The history of organized labor in the United States stretches across a long period of time and has many people and organizations involved. Many of the early labor unions were actively racist and prohibited minority inclusion. This week’s featured video provides a three-minute glimpse of African-American involvement in the organized labor movement. A. Philip Randolph (photo above) was the first president of the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters—the first Black union in the country. Randolph’s lifetime of activism included a significant role throughout the Civil Rights Movement.