Sorry, Right-Wing Media, Unionization Is Good for Liberal Publications

Meg McLain

I can't tell if it's intellectual dishonesty or intellectual incompetence, but a number of conservative outlets have wildly misconstrued comments from The Nation's Richard Kim in my recent piece on diversity at liberal publications. Here's what Kim said about diversity at the country's oldest liberal magazine:

“The staff here is unionized, which means there is little job turnover,” says Richard Kim, executive editor at The Nation, who is Asian American and gay. “We only get to make a hire every four or five years.”

And here is what the staff at the Washington Free Beacon took away:

A top editor at one of the nation’s oldest liberal magazine says unionization has destroyed diversity in the newsroom. … Richard Kim, executive editor at the Nation, told the American Prospect that union restrictions on hiring and firing have made it impossible to bring more minorities on board.

If this were written by a first-year college student, I'd ask, "Does your evidence support the claim you are making?" Kim, of course, did not say that unionization has "destroyed diversity," a claim that is simply untrue. The staff at The Nation has been historically white. This reflects the institutional biases of the wider society; it has nothing to do with whether its staff is unionized. 

Unionization's effect on diversity is indirect: On a staff that already lacks diversity, unionization makes change slower. This isn't necessarily because, as the Washington Free Beacon suggests, management can't fire all the white people and bring racial and ethnic minorities on board (unionization does protect workers from managerial whims of all kinds, but wouldn't you say that's a good thing?). Rather, it's because workers are happier in their jobs. Workers in unionized workplaces tend to have better benefits, better pay, and more job security. Because of this, they stay in their jobs longer. As Kim pointed out, this means that there are fewer opportunities to make hires and thus change the composition of the staff. You might call that a tradeoff, but those of us on the left would say the benefits to employees outweigh the constraints an organized staff puts on management.

On a broader note, no one can deny that organized labor's track record on racial issues is spotty. While the early Knights of Labor welcomed black members and actively pushed for their inclusion in organizing efforts, under the leadership of founder Samuel Gompers the early American Federation of Labor sanctioned the segregation of local affiliates and lobbied Congress to reauthorize the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The Congress of Industrial Organizations, on the other hand, promoted racial integration in its ranks and sought to quell racial tensions among its workers, supporting the Roosevelt administration's Fair Employment Practices Commission. African Americans also formed their own labor unions; black labor leader A. Philip Randolph, founder of Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, went on to become vice president of the AFL-CIO, helping to organize the March on WashingtonIn the modern age, labor has championed not only racial equity but LGBT and women's rights as well. But again, unions' uneven treatment of racial minorities reflected the dynamics of the society as a whole; unions are neither inherently racist nor inherently egalitarian.

Were the staff at The Nation—or any other of the publications surveyed, for that matter—already racially and ethnically diverse, one could say unionization has benefited minorities on staff, who would have more job security and better benefits than their counterparts at non-unionized workplaces. But unionization has no bearing on who gets hired, and that's the point at which companies become more diverse, or not.

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