Labor rights and civil rights: One intertwined struggle for all workers 

A person working eight hours per day with a one-hour round-trip commute—who sleeps for eight hours a night—spends over half of their waking life at, going to, or coming from their workplace. Aside from children, full-time students, and those who have lived long enough to collect Social Security benefits, Americans live their lives as workers. With the exception of the roughly 10% of U.S. workers who list themselves as self-employed1 and those who make their income from capital, that work takes place as employees.

Despite how much of American adult life is governed under employment agreements, most Americans also have little say over the terms of those agreements after they have been accepted. Most American workers are employed “at will,” meaning they can be fired by their employer at the employer’s discretion as long as the given reason does not violate federal law. If a worker is made to feel uncomfortable at work by a customer, or if the pace of work becomes stressful, or if conditions of their life change such that they need special accommodation, then in most cases solutions are up to the kindness of the employer to provide—there is nothing that requires them to do so.

Entering the workplace for most American adults can in that case represent an agreement to forfeit a degree of control over their lives in exchange for the wages necessary to live. If people do not have a voice in determining the pace and content of their time in the workplace, then in a real sense they lack control over the largest portion of their lives.

The core idea behind “civil rights” is that people should have the freedom to exist in political and social equality with one another. But under employment, an individual worker has a starkly unequal relationship with their employer. For workers to exist in the workplace without forfeiting their civil rights, they must be able to bargain on equal footing with their employers—that is, they need to have the ability to organize into unions among themselves. In this sense the movement for securing labor rights is not separate from the movement for securing civil rights—it is a fulfillment of those goals.

The civil rights movement in America lives in the national memory as a sustained series of efforts to end institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination throughout U.S. society. In action, much of the civil rights movement was concerned with improving labor conditions for Black workers, both so they could exist on equal footing with white workers and so they could better organize with their white counterparts to bargain with their employers.

The true name of the 1963 “March on Washington,” the largest political rally of the civil rights movement, was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” One of the major organizers of the March, A. Philip Randolph, was a labor organizer. The March on Washington’s goals were as concerned with Black Americans’ economic well-being as they were with their social standing. The core tenets of the movement included prohibiting discrimination in public or private hiring, establishing a $2 minimum wage (equivalent to roughly $17 in 2021), and expanding the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to include the majority-Black occupations the Act excluded at the time.

At that time, there was no separation between the ideas of civil rights and labor rights. It was understood that there could be no civic freedom without economic security. Today, many of our national narratives around the civil rights movement separate the struggle for the right to vote and the dissolution of segregated schools and lunch counters from that of raising the minimum wage and making it easier for workers to unionize, but this does a disservice to our history.

The historical opponents of civil rights legislation were and remain opposed to policies that improve economic conditions and bargaining power for Black workers, though that opposition is often stripped of its racial context. The strongest resistance against improving labor standards for the working class in the United States has emerged from states where the exploitation of Black labor grounds their strategy for economic development. States that fought against the Union in the Civil War are collectively the least likely to support unionization today—South Carolina, the first state to secede, has the lowest unionization rate in the country at just 2.9% of employed workers.

Slavery provided the foundation for the entire country’s wealth, but it was uniquely integral to the Southern economy and way of life. When that practice of violent labor coercion was outlawed nationwide after the Civil War, Southern planters adapted their economic strategy to remain as close to the old system as possible. Black workers were denied adequate wages and protections and were met with obstinate and violent resistance when they sought recourse.

Southern legislators saw that Black workers were largely carved out of the benefits of New Deal legislation passed in the 1930s through exclusions for domestic and agricultural workers—the occupations in which Southern Black workers were most heavily concentrated. Justification for these exclusions was not made in racially explicit terms. Rather, the argument was made that to extend the rights guaranteed through the National Labor Relations Act and Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 would represent the end of Southern industry and the destruction of job opportunities for all Southern workers.

Whatever the justification, these exclusions meant that large swaths of Black workers were denied the protections of a national minimum wage and a 40-hour workweek. When the FLSA was finally amended nearly 30 years later to include those excluded agricultural workers after years of labor and civil rights activism, Black workers saw their incomes improve significantly, racial wage inequality fell, and there were no adverse effects on employment in the aggregate.

Conservative backlash to the racial and economic progress made during the 1960s sought to dismantle and defund institutions designed to protect Black workers and, crucially, to weaken the labor movement by making it difficult for workers to unionize. Anti-poverty programs were racialized and stigmatized throughout the United States, while anxieties around desegregation were being mobilized to weaken the labor movement in the South. An eroded social safety net makes it more difficult for workers to risk job loss by engaging in labor-organizing activities.

The struggle against racial oppression in the United States has always been aligned with the struggle against economic exploitation. Separating issues of racial equality from those of economic justice would abandon the civil rights movement’s core tenets.

Legislation like the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which seeks to empower workers with the freedom to hold fair union elections, represents a new step forward in the struggle toward achieving full civil and labor rights. By making it illegal for hostile employers to interfere with an election process, the PRO Act will allow workers who want a union to bring that form of democracy into their workplace. The expansion of the full rights of democracy to more people across more of their lives is the goal of the civil rights movement. Expanding the reach of unions should be seen as being in lockstep with this goal.


1. Calculated using April 2021 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) incorporated and unincorporated self-employed data as a share of the age 16+ labor force.