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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.

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The post office offered blacks some of the first non-laboring jobs available to them, says Berger. “It was a result on the part of some federal lawmakers who sought black voters.”

According to University of Pennsylvania historian Thomas Sugrue, just 396 of Detroit’s 30,324 municipal workers were black in 1940. Six years later, a full 36 percent of city workers were black thanks to a push from civil rights leaders and a politically astute mayor out to secure a growing black vote. Most blacks filled jobs at the “lower end of the occupational ladder,” along with more prestigious public transit work, that whites had abandoned for the more lucrative defense industry. Large numbers of black teachers were also hired to teach at majority black schools. But managerial positions remained in white hands.

“Civil rights activists in a lot of cities fought municipal governments and to a lesser extent state governments,” says Berger, “to have an opportunity to get the new jobs” at a time when many private sector jobs were still reserved for whites.

The same was true in Baltimore, which passed a fair-employment ordinance in 1956 and began to open public sector jobs to blacks in large numbers. According to Berger, the percentage of Baltimore public sector workers who were black rose from 26 in 1964 to 40 in 1970.

As segregation took root in northern and southern cities, Berger says that jobs opened up for black social work, teachers and nurses to serve the black community, especially for “women, because a lot of the jobs were gendered.”

Public sector spending rose during the New Deal, and social spending to cities boomed under Kennedy and Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty.

“Just as blacks have found a bit of a niche in the military,” says Pitts, “it’s also true in non-military elements of the public sectors.”

Kennedy’s 1962 Executive Order 10988 legalized collective bargaining for federal employees and spurred public sector worker organizing drives in cities and states nation-wide. But federal spending to cities was cut under President Carter and then sharply curtailed under Reagan, compounding the urban crisis for blacks: fewer jobs for black workers and fewer services for black residents.

“When you have cutbacks in the public sector, you have a disproportionate impact on the black community,” says Pitts.

During the 1970s and '80s, the fiscal crisis and political backlash against civil rights led to crackdowns against striking public employees. According to Georgetown University historian Joseph McCartin, urban mayors pioneered the tactic of firing and permanently replacing striking workers that Reagan infamously employed in 1981, when he fired 11,352 air traffic controllers.

Industrial jobs also began to disappear from city centers, so soon after black workers had gotten their foot in the door. Public sector workers made up a majority of unionized workers for the first time in 2010 thanks to the decimation of private sector unions and continuing deindustrialization. Public sector jobs are now some of the only good jobs left for a working-class black person. Black workers earn less than white workers across the board, but public sector jobs deliver a significant wage boost. The median wage for black females is $12.36 overall, but $15.50 for those employed in the public sector; likewise, the median for black males is $13.75 overall, and $17 for those working in the public sector.

The genius of the conservative and big business message machine over the past decades has been to convince many non-union workers to be jealous of public employees and angry at the recipients of the social programs who they serve.

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