Black people love to talk about economic self-help, about what old Elijah Muhammad used to call "doing for self."

What we don’t look at most of the time, is what collective economic self-help actually looks like in the real world. Mostly, it does not look like individual entrepreneurship, everybody starting their own small business.

In the real world, a great portion of the things we use and consume every day from the electric power, transport and communications grids, along with the appliances, vehicles and devices used thereon are produced, delivered and utilized by and through organizations with many hundreds or many thousands of employees. Think about the cable, mass transit and highway systems, the internet and the health care industry. Think government. Think Wal-Mart and McDonalds and you’ll be thinking about the places where millions of poor people work.

Any black conversation about collective economic self-help that ignores the existing workforce in existing workplaces is a pretend conversation.

In the real world, the most successful collective economic self-help organizations of the last hundred and fifty years have been labor unions. A single 3-day strike by the black led New York City transit workers in 2005 protected the homes, the medical care, retirement security, college educations and living standards of more black families than the half-dozen wealthiest black Americans – that would be Oprah, Puffy, Bob Johnson, Tiger Woods, Bill Cosby and some real estate guy – have employed or helped in their entire careers.

In the real world, working people, especially black and brown working people, are eager to help themselves, and the most potent way to do that has been to form and join unions.

When offered the chance, black women are the most likely joiners, followed in order by black men, Latino women and men, and finally by white women and men.

Why then, has US private sector union membership dipped to around 6% of the workforce?

It’s not because unions were outmoded or greedy or not in step with the times. It’s because increasing corporate domination of US political life has resulted in laws and court decisions which have made most strikes illegal, collective bargaining extremely difficult, and organizing unions in the first place nearly impossible.

It’s long been illegal, for instance, to fire workers suspected of union activity, but the fines are so small and long delayed that employers routinely violate the law and pay the fines as an inconsequential cost of doing business.

This week President Obama betrayed the collective economic interest of black and working people by signing into law new restrictions on the formation of unions [1].

From now on bosses in many sectors can file anti-union lawsuits and depose under oath workers who sign union cards. Employers can add unpaid ghosts and no-show workers to eligibility lists to prevent union drives from getting a majority of eligible signatures. The same law also makes it easier for corporations to dismiss union recognition and contracts by changing their ownership.

This was no compromise forced upon the president by unreasonable Republicans. This was the unprovoked and naked surrender of our rights to economic self-help, our rights to struggle for a living wage, for dignity and security for all our families by a Trojan Horse black president elected with black and union support, but governing on behalf of his real masters, the lords of capital.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report.

February 22, 2012