WASHINGTON – Black labor leaders and workers discussed the importance of centering unionization efforts to ensure job quality for workers across the United States on Tuesday.

Outgoing U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said President Biden has been the most pro-union president in history, adding that the administration plans to expand economic opportunities and equity by acknowledging the historic role of unions and organized workers in its policies. 

“It’s about making sure that workers have rights to unionization,”  Walsh said. “History shows us that incredible barriers that Black businesses and workers have faced and the legacies of that history live on in economic systems here today.”

Walsh is expected to leave his Cabinet post next month after accepting a job with the National Hockey League Players Union.

Julie Su, Deputy Secretary of Labor, said the top priority of the Biden administration is ensuring that the Black middle class is strengthened and extended to uplift the entire middle class. 

“The racial wealth gap in the United States persists, and in 2019, the median wealth for the white household was $184,000,” Su said. “For a Black household, it was $23,000. A white family’s wealth is eight times higher than that of the average Black family.”‘

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11.5% of Black workers are union members, the highest rate of any major racial group.

Su says that union representation narrows racial pay gaps and increases pay for Black workers by 17.3%, compared to 10.1% for white workers.

Fredrick Redmond, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations Secretary and Treasurer, says that as a second-generation steelworker, unions helped his family move from poverty and into the middle class. 

“Black workers that work in unions make more than those who do the same work that don’t,” Redmond said. “We have to be very intentional about changing the laws in this country to make it easier for workers who want to join a union without threats and intimidation. 

Sherry Willard, a fourth-year HVAC apprentice from North Carolina, says she learned about the union-offered apprenticeship after she complained in a Facebook post about not having the opportunity to learn how to pursue a trade. 

“In every job that I’ve had, I’m always the only girl in maintenance. I’ve never worked with another woman in maintenance, especially with another Black woman.

Of the 10 states with the lowest union memberships, seven are in the south. Additionally, eight of the 12 states with the worst working conditions are also in the south. Su pointed out that investing in workers in the south is critical, as half of the Black population resides in southern states. 

“Economic exploitation in this nation started in the South with the enslavement of Africans, and economic exploitation continues in this country and the South, exploiting not just Black people, but Brown people and working-class White people,” April Verrett, Service Employees International Union Secretary-Treasurer said. “Support workers who want to stand up and form unions, but also no longer allow corporations to get away with exploiting people the way that they do.