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Attack on Public Employees Deals a Sharp Blow to Blacks

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AFL-CIO Media Center


Even though the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, the subsequent jobless recovery continues to inflict great pain on working families. This is especially true in the black community, where the unemployment rate of 15.7 percent in January was higher than at the end of the recession (14.9 percent). Conservatives ignore this misery and call for fiscal austerity. And as events in Wisconsin and across the country are showing, the demand for austerity is a subterfuge for a frontal assault on public employees and their freedom to bargain for a middle class life.

This attack casts a particularly sharp blow to the black community. Before the recession, 18 percent of black men and 23.3 percent of black women were public employees, making this sector the leading employer of black men and the second leading employer of black women. In contrast, 14.2 percent of white men, 19.8 percent of white women, 7.5 percent of Latinos and 14.9 percent of Latinas were public employees. It is important to note that these are national figures. In urban areas with large black populations, the role of the public sector in providing good jobs and creating a middle class for the black community is undoubtedly greater.

As we fight for a genuine economic recovery, we must not forget that the economy did not serve workers well before the Great Recession. There was rising income inequality and flat wage growth. This was especially evident in the black community, where unemployment levels routinely doubled that of whites and 42.7 percent of fulltime black workers earned less than $30,000, compared with 27.3 percent for white workers.

The persistent reality of racial inequities regardless of the state of the economy reminds us that in our quest for a just society, economic justice and racial justice are intertwined. The union movement cannot limit its battles to fights for family-sustaining wages and a voice at work. The fight for dignity at work includes a fight against all forms of racism in the labor market.

Advocates for racial justice cannot limit their economic demands to calls for job creation and anti-discrimination enforcement in the workplace. Without the collective power that unions can exert in the labor markets and at the ballot box, employers will drive wages to the lowest possible levels and subject workers to arbitrary whims. They also will discriminate against people of color and sow divisiveness among workers.

Fifty years ago, when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke before the AFL-CIO convention, he said the interests of blacks and labor were identical as they both faced a twin-headed monster spewing forth anti-labor and anti-black epithets. We justly praise those remarks.

King’s favorite unions were those that saw their mission as fighting the twin evils of racial and economic exploitation in the community, the workplace and the union. We would do well to follow their examples, not just during Black History Month, but all year long.