Some historians contend that conditions in the United States during the Second World War gave rise to a dynamic wartime alliance between trade unions and the African American community, an alliance that advanced the cause of civil rights. They conclude that the postwar demise of this vital alliance constituted a lost opportunity for the civil rights movement that followed the war. Other scholars, however, have portrayed organized labor as defending all along the relatively privileged position of White workers relative to African American workers. Clearly, these two perspectives are not easily reconcilable, but the historical reality is not reducible to one or the other.
Unions faced a choice between either maintaining the prewar status quo or promoting a more inclusive approach that sought for all members the right to participate in the internal affairs of unions, access to skilled and high-paying positions within the occupational hierarchy, and protection against management's arbitrary authority in the workplace. While union representatives often voiced this inclusive ideal, in practice unions far more often favored entrenched interests. The accelerating development of the civil rights movement following the Second World War exacerbated the unions' dilemma, forcing trade unionists to confront contradictions in their own practices.