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How Unions Helped Bring Economic Justice to Black Workers

Despite the fact that most black people are workers, the media continues to talk about black issues and union issues separately.

Police attacked a crowd of striking black sanitation workers in Memphis on February 23 1968, 43 years ago this Wednesday. It was low-pay and dangerous work, and they suffered abusive white supervisors. Two workers had been crushed to death that January. The City Council refused to recognize the collective bargaining rights of the workers, who had joined the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Their picket signs read “I Am a Man.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., a long-time ally of organized labor, came to Memphis to support the strikers. He led marches and spoke to crowds of thousands as protesters confronted an increasingly violent police response. King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

As tens of thousands of workers in Wisconsin protest to defend their right to collectively bargain, the key role of public sector jobs and unions in delivering economic justice to black workers has been largely overlooked. In a speech at an AFL-CIO convention seven years earlier, King told the crowd that labor was a civil rights priority and that the two movements faced a common enemy:

“Negroes are almost entirely a working people. There are pitifully few Negro millionaires, and few Negro employers. Our needs are identical with labor's needs -- decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor's demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

After King’s murder, Memphis recognized the striking workers' demands under heightened federal pressure. The strike energized public sector workers nation-wide, including in Baltimore where the city agreed to recognize collective bargaining rights. With sanitation workers at the lead, the number of major public employee strikes exploded in the late 1960s.

“You think of that assassination setting off rebellions and riots in a lot of cities,” says Jane Berger, professor at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. “But we often forget that it encouraged collective bargaining efforts for municipal workers around the country.”

The public sector is still highly important for black workers; 20.9 percent of all black workers are employed in the public sector, according to data provided by Steven Pitts, labor policy specialist at the University of California at Berkeley Labor Center. While blacks make up just 11.3 percent of the overall workforce, they represent 14.5 percent of workers in the public sector and 15 percent of workers in educational and health services. Those numbers would be much larger in cities with large black populations like Milwaukee, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Unions also give black workers, who are vulnerable to racism in the workplace, needed on-the-job protections.

“Black workers have an interest in unions as all workers do, because they give them power in the labor market to improve working conditions, and allow them due process and fairness on the job,” says Pitts. “Any sort of institution that allows due process procedures and reduces arbitrary behavior in decision making is positive for black folks.”

Black workers have been fighting to gain access to jobs since the end of slavery. Thanks to the power of black voters in the early and mid-20th century, cities and states often began to hire black workers at a time when private sector jobs in manufacturing or construction were still largely reserved for whites.

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