The Future of Work: Can Minority Americans Shift the Labor Debate to the Left?

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
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Voters casting their ballots on election day in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

Voters casting their ballots on election day in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

The future of work and workers in the United States will be shaped by the relentlessly increasing size of the Latino and Asian-American electorates and workforces. Non-Hispanic whites constitute less than 63 percent of the American population while Latinos (at 17.1 percent) and Asian Americans (at 5.3 percent) represent the fastest-growing segments of the workforce and electorate, according to the latest Census Bureau figures. As recently as 1980, and the election of Ronald Reagan, whites were more than 80 percent of the electorate and nearly 80 percent of the population.

Gary Segura is a professor of American politics at Stanford University and co-founder and principal of the polling and research firm Latino Decisions.

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This demographic shift has come to re-define Electoral College politics and significantly re-shape the American presidential election map, to the benefit of Democrats who receive comfortable majorities—and, more recently, supermajorities—of votes from communities of color. If there is to be a shift in policies regulating the workplace and labor force—a shift in the direction of the interests of workers and their families—it will be predicated on the political power of these growing segments.

A key question, then, is whether and how minority Americans act politically on behalf of workers, either through organized labor or their own ballots. To improve the conditions and rewards for American labor, to begin to close the yawning income gap and even greater wealth gap in American society, advocates for workers need buy-in from communities of color and their leadership. What evidence do we have for such a buy-in?

I have three data points that could provide a window into whether and to what degree Latinos (and Asian Americans) might shift debates around workers and the workplace to the left. First, both groups are enthusiastic supporters of increasing the minimum wage. In our 2014 Latino and Asian American Election Eve Polls, we found that high-propensity voters in both groups favor increasing the minimum wage to the proposed $10.10, 78 percent in favor to 18 percent opposed among Latinos, and 74 percent in favor to 18 percent opposed for Asian Americans. This is not surprising, especially for Latinos, since people of color (especially immigrants) are far more likely to be concentrated in the lowest wage-earning categories.

A second important data point is with regard to minority views of inequality and the huge and growing income gap that is leaving everyday workers further and further behind. Evidence seems clear that minority citizens see continued inequality—both racial and income—as a persistent problem. In a study we completed for the Center for American Progress in 2013, we asked Americans of all racial backgrounds their views on whether inequality was harming the country. Specifically, we asked half our respondents if income inequality was harming economic growth or just a natural result of the economy with no harmful effects. The other half of the sample received a nearly identical question regarding racial inequality.

Latinos and Asian Americans overwhelmingly believed that the effect was harmful. Among Asian Americans, 52 percent of respondents asked the income question thought that inequality was somewhat or significantly harming economic growth, compared with 36 percent who thought it was without consequence. Among those asked about racial inequality, again 52 percent found it harmful while 41 percent thought it had negligible economic effects. For Latinos, the results were more striking, with 59 percent seeing harm from income inequality and 55 percent seeing harm from racial inequality, compared with just 36 percent and 37 percent, respectively, seeing no harm.

By far, African Americans were the most concerned about inequality and non-Hispanic whites the least concerned. In fact, while almost two-thirds of black respondents saw economic dangers in racial inequality, a plurality of white respondents thought racial inequality had little or no harmful economic effect.

We asked these same respondents about government action to address these forms of inequality. Sizable majorities of all racial and ethnic minority groups saw value in government policies to reduce inequality, both income and racial. By contrast, a majority of white respondents thought that government action would cause more harm than good on income inequality, and a plurality felt the same on government action to address racial inequality.

The racial structure of opinion on income inequality has huge political implications. The percentage of whites favoring government action looks remarkably similar to the percentage of whites voting Democratic in national elections, around or even under 40 percent, and the racialized structure of party coalitions—where nine of 10 Republican votes come from whites—is a political reality that seems likely to continue for some time.

Finally, we might normally expect that concern over inequality and support for higher wages should suggest support for organized labor. For Latinos especially, organized labor has become an increasing force in political organization and, in fact, an important voice around the vexing question of immigration reform. But somewhat frustratingly, Latino participation in unions is not as high as we might expect. The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds Latinos the least unionized of the four large racial groups. According to the bureau, 13.2 percent of African Americans, 10.8 percent of whites, 10.4 percent of Asian Americans, and only 9.2 percent of Hispanics are members of organized labor.

Channeling the desire for change and enthusiastic support for government action is the key challenge for organized labor and the leaders of communities of color. If there is to be a serious re-invigoration of labor as a political and economic force, coupled with political action, the first step would be the incorporation of more workers of color, who enthusiastically support wage increases and other government action and find the current state of unequal affairs both wrong and destructive.

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For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.

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