How Unions Helped Bring Economic Justice to Black Workers

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.

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.

“It became popular during the 1980s during the war on drugs to applaud police officers for the rising number of people they arrested,” says Berger, “but people didn’t have the same warm feelings when welfare people brought more people on food stamps. That was seen as welfare workers helping welfare queens.”

That message against public employees and recipients of public services has long been racially coded. In 2005, the New York transit strike quickly took on racial overtones, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg calling the largely black and Latino union “thuggish.”

“As governors and columnists have painted pictures of overpaid, underworked public employee in recent weeks,” writes Colorlines editor Kai Wright, “I have also seen the faint outline of familiar caricatures—welfare queens, Cadillacs in the projects, Mexican freeloaders. It’s hard to escape the fact that, in the states and localities with the biggest budget crunches (New Jersey, California, New York…) public employees are uniquely black.”

Black workers, like Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and March on Washington movement leader A. Phillip Randolph, have also made an impact on a labor movement that was largely white-led and at times even racist. Fighting for justice on the job, black unionists also challenged unions that excluded non-whites or who were complicit in employer job discrimination. Indeed, it was public sector union leader William Lucy, who was working with King in Memphis and went on to be

elected AFSCME secretary-treasurer, who founded the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists in 1972 and pushed the labor movement to stand against apartheid. Despite that, most Americans continue to have a limited view of the civil rights movement.

“When telling the story of the civil rights movement we tend to downplay the role of economic justice,” says Pitts, noting that many civil rights leaders came out of the labor movement. “We talk a lot about desegregating hotels, desegregating restaurants and so forth. The [Memphis] strikers were representatives of that wing of civil rights activism. We also know that Martin Luther King was starting the poor people’s campaign. He saw the Memphis strike in that light.”

Despite the fact that so many black people are workers, the media continues to talk about black issues and union issues separately. During the 2008 election, there was constant discussion about whether Obama could match Hillary’s appeal to the “working class,” the implication being that the working class was white.

“We don’t talk about working-class blacks,” says Pitts. “Most blacks are workers. So when we talk about needs and concerns of working class people, you can’t talk about it without talking about the needs and concerns of black folks.”


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