Vice President of UAW-Ford

As we celebrate Black History Month, it is important to remember the historical importance of organized labor to Black workers and their families, and unionism’s continued relevance today.

It was once legal to discriminate against minorities in hiring and wage equity. Even when it became illegal to discriminate against minorities in the workplace, bias against minorities was widely practiced and tolerated. Unions were at the forefront of the fight for equal wages and an equal chance at jobs that could elevate families out of poverty.

Historically, African-Americans were given the least desirable jobs, if they were permitted to work at all alongside whites, and the auto industry was no exception. With the advent of the UAW, job opportunities and wages improved.

The UAW was formed to fight for, and ensure, workers’ rights. Fairness and justice is the epicenter of our value system and it extends to the community as a whole.

UAW was one of the earliest and most steadfast supporters of the Civil Rights Movement, particularly Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of equality and solidarity. When Nelson Mandela was finally freed from prison in South Africa, he demanded to visit UAW-Ford Local 600 in Dearborn to thank UAW members for their unwavering and outspoken support.

The tradition of the UAW’s commitment to societal justice continues today. We are an outspoken opponent of unfair and unsafe labor practices worldwide. Our concern extends beyond labor to community welfare. UAW-Ford members volunteer thousands of hours every year to improve the communities in which we live, work and play.

Today, the UAW is as important to labor rights as it was in its earliest years. “Right to Work” laws threaten to undermine the effort put into hard-won negotiated rights and to splinter and weaken unions. Weakening unions by extension weakens minority communities, as African-Americans are particularly vulnerable to a reduction in unionism. To illustrate organized labor’s significance in African-American communities, consider this fact: Unions represented 15.8 of African-American males in 2014. That’s more than 3 percent higher than any other demographic.

Organized labor has historically been the door through which African-Americans entered middle-class status. States with Right to Work laws have been shown to have lower wages, lower rates of health coverage, higher poverty and infant mortality, less investment in education and higher workplace fatalities.

Battles waged against unions disproportionately affect African-American middle-class communities. Whether it’s fair housing, job opportunities or voter registration and participation, UAW is at the forefront of fighting for civil and human rights issues.

As we commemorate Black History Month in 2016, let us not only remember how far we have come but also keep in mind that our hard-won victories still need protection today.