Commentary: Unions help achieve racial justice by closing the wage gap

Neil Campbell is an iron worker with the union Local 7.

Juneteenth will be observed as an official state holiday for the first time in Massachusetts this year. We celebrate this day as the end of slavery and the outlawing of forced, unpaid labor in the United States. Juneteenth marks an important milestone in our nation's history and has gone unrecognized in a widespread and visible way for much too long.

Despite progress, the struggle continues for Black workers in our county, and in particular here in Boston. We see that labor, especially Black labor, is not valued equally. As a Black union member of Iron Workers Local 7, I see others whose work is not compensated and recognized in the way my work is respected and valued by my union.

We honor Juneteenth as a day to reclaim our history and rejoice in how much we have overcome. It's also a day to renew our commitment to the fight for racial and economic justice. Workers, especially people of color, are having a tougher time achieving the American dream. Housing and health care costs are continuing to skyrocket, and without union representation, wages stagnate.

Shockingly, in Boston, the median wealth for Black households is $8 — compared to $247,500 for white households. To keep growing and thriving we need to address this disparity. Doing so would benefit all workers in the region. A recent report found that closing the wealth gap could grow Massachusetts' economy by $25 billion over five years.

Just as unions were a key part of expanding the middle class after World War II, they've also been crucial in closing the racial wealth gap between Black and white families. Black union members' wages are about 25% higher compared to Black Americans who are not in a union. Black Americans are almost twice as likely to be uninsured compared to their white counterparts — yet a founding principle of labor unions ensures all members have access to high-quality, affordable health insurance. By expanding opportunities for people of color to join unions, we eliminate inequities and invest in the health and future of our nation.

I have experienced the benefits of being in a union firsthand. I've been able to provide a good life for my family. I own my home and can afford to put my kids through college if they choose that path. The union difference is not only fair pay and a living wage, but also health care benefits and a pension. I never have to worry "can I afford to go to the doctor?" if I get sick. I know that one day I'll be able to retire comfortably. Sadly, there are still many workers, especially those who are Black and brown, who lack that type of security.

As a 22-year member, my union has not only made my life better, but has made a difference in the lives of so many other people of color. Our leadership at Local 7 has worked hard to make the union more welcoming to people who look like me. The world is changing, and I'm happy to see how Local 7 has been leading efforts for a more inclusive union.

Our fight to close the wealth gap is part of racial justice. Unions are leading the way by guaranteeing equal pay among all union workers and lifting up standards for working people of all backgrounds. Juneteenth is a day of celebration of the progress we've made, but it should also be a reminder that we still have more work to do in pursuit of racial and economic justice for Black Americans.

Neil Campbell is an union iron worker with Local 7.