Did you know that trade unions were responsible for apartheid, which devastated the lives of black and coloured people in South Africa for nearly a century?
The logic was simple – black people were willing to work as miners for lower wages than white people. So the white-controlled unions lobbied to not allow black people to work in mines, so that their wages weren’t undercut. And what started as a movement to not let blacks work in diamond mines became an overall anti-black movement that led to apartheid.
This is captured in this beautiful old essay in Econlib. A couple of excerpts:
At first, however, the white capitalist could deal directly only with the few English and Afrikaner managers and foremen who shared his tongue and work habits. But the premium such workers commanded soon became an extravagance. Black workers were becoming capable of performing industrial leadership roles in far greater numbers and at far less cost. Driven by the profit motive, the substitution of black for white in skilled and semiskilled mining jobs rose high on the agenda of the mining companies.
Nonetheless, the state instituted an array of legal impediments to the promotion of black workers. The notorious Pass Laws sought to sharply limit the supply of nonwhite workers in “white” employment centers. Blacks were not allowed to become lawful citizens, to live permanently near their work, or to travel without government passports. This last restriction created a catch-22. If passports were issued only to those already possessing jobs, how was a nonwhite to get into the job area to procure a job so as to obtain a passport? Nonwhites also were prohibited from bringing their families while working in the mines (reinforcing the transient nature of employment).
To discourage mine owners from substituting cheaper African labor for more expensive European labor, the trade unions regularly resorted to violence and the strike threat. They also turned to legislation: the Mines and Works Act of 1911 (commonly referred to as the first Colour Bar Act) used the premise of “worker safety” to institute a licensing scheme for labor. A government board was set up to certify individuals for work in “hazardous” occupations. The effect was to decertify non-Europeans, who were deemed “unqualified.”
Read the whole thing. Going by modern American (or British) politics, this kind of a conflict between labour unions and blacks doesn’t make sense. After all, both these “communities” are among the biggest supporters of the Democratic (or Labour) Party, and so based on modern politics, you would imagine that they would be in harmony with each other on most counts.
However, I’m not sure the conflict between mostly-white unions and blacks has completely gone away.
I’ve been thinking of the brutal killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests all over the USA (and elsewhere) over the last 10 days. The protestors have been protesting against racism, and the many cases of abuse of black people by white policemen in the US.
While the perpetrators of the crime were all racist white men, and the victim was a black man, I don’t know how much of the brutality can be attributed to racism, and how much simply to bad policing. Keep aside the victim’s race for a moment, and think about what happened – a policeman pinned down a suspect, and then knelt upon his neck for eight minutes until he was dead.
Racism has a part to play in that maybe the policemen thought they have a higher chance of getting away with it because the victim was black, but that the cop thought it was okay to brutalise just about anyone the way he did is atrocious.
Having largely been off social media, my reading about this (and related) issues is through the blogs that I follow, and one phrase that repeatedly make an appearance in this context is “police unions”. Policemen, like many other professions, are highly unionised in the United States, and the unions set rules for how the police can be treated, what they can be expected to do, their punishments, etc.
And from the stuff I’ve read (too many to link to everything), the unions give individual cops to behave the way they want to, knowing that punishment is going to be limited.
Today I came across this rather interesting post by Alex Tabarrok about Camden (New Jersey) where policemen marched with the Black Lives Matters protestors. There is a very interesting history to policing in Camden NJ.
In May of 2013, however, the entire police department was disbanded nullifying the union contract and an entirely new county police department was put into place.
And Tabarrok’s post goes on to show that the dissolution and reconstitution of the police force (basically the dissolution of the union) has led to tangible benefits in terms of reduced violent crime.
So it appears that, decades after apartheid was (in letter) abolished, white-controlled unions continue to make life really difficult for blacks.