“There is a kind of strength that is almost frightening in Black women. It’s as if a steel rod runs right through the head down to the feet,” said American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou.
It is only fitting, as we close out Black History month and move into Women’s History month, that we highlight the continued strength and resilience of Black women. Black women are playing significant roles in shaping the direction of emerging social movements and struggles for the rights of working people across the country. And even more, they are a growing force for change and influence in the country’s sharply divided electorate. In order for the labor movement, and the country as a whole to thrive, this force must be recognized and nurtured.
Donald Trump’s agenda is riddled with anti-labor policies. This agenda attacks the livelihood of millions of working people across the nation. From his push to make the National Labor Relations Board into a pro-corporate (and anti- worker) body, to his (and the GOP’s) continued advocacy for the so-called “right to work”law, it is clear that the labor movement will be on the defensive for the next four years.
It is also clear, from the percentages of the 2016 voter turnout, that a majority of Black women knew this, and other offensive policies, were likely to be enacted. Ninety-four percent of Black women who showed up to the polls voted for Hillary Clinton. Yet, Black women do more than vote; they are active in their unions, acting as a force of organizing and mobilization.
Labor benefits from strength of Black women
The labor movement is the largest mass membership organization of women, African Americans, Latinos, and Asians in the country. It is larger than organizations such as the NAACP, NOW, La Raza, and LULAC combined. It is the largest organization that includes these marginalized sections of the population. Trump’s attacks on the labor movement are not only an attack on working people as a whole, but particularly on workers of color and women, since it is through the labor movement that a great amount of their strength is realized.
The continued right-wing attacks on the hard-won gains of labor and working people show that there is much at stake, and Black women will find themselves at the forefront of these battles. One reason is that African- Americans have historically been the most pro-union, and the demographic most likely to be union members. In 2014, Black women, at 13.5 percent, were only second to Black men, at 15.8 percent, in having the highest union representation rate compared with other race or gender groups. Along with this, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), some of the fastest growing occupations with the greatest increase in job opportunities projected through 2024 will be in the healthcare, retail trade, and food services sectors. These are industries increasingly filled by Black women. The service sector is 27 percent African-American women.
Even as Black women lead the charge for equal rights and a better standard of living for all working class and poor people, they continue to face marginalization and exploitation. They still face a significant wage gap and are more likely to work in lower-paid occupations such as fast food, retail, and the service industry. For example, Black women food service workers earn only 60 percent of the salaries that their male counterparts earn.
For Black women, the union advantage is immense. Black women in unions average $21.90 an hour, while non-union women earn $17.04, according to the report “And Still I Rise: Black Women Labor Leaders’ Voices, Power, Promise.” Union membership can even be the difference between life and death; 72 percent of women in unions have health insurance, while less than 50 percent of nonunion black women do.