Gutting Unions Hurts the Black Middle Class

The push to eliminate the power of public unions to bargain collectively, as the GOP is trying to do in Wisconsin, can disproportionately affect black workers. Here's why.

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Demonstrators at the Wisconsin State Capitol, March 5, 2011 (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

We're republishing this article, which originally ran on March 10, 2011, in honor of Labor Day.

"The Fabulous 14."

That's what Rozalia Harris and other members of the Milwaukee teachers union call the renegade Democratic state senators who fled Wisconsin on Feb. 17 to stop a vote on a proposed spending plan that includes restrictions on collective bargaining by public workers. "We are grateful to the Fabulous 14 because their willingness to put their jobs on the line has helped raise awareness of the problem of the proposed collective bargaining restrictions," Harris, a third-grade teacher and vice president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, the largest in Wisconsin, told The Root. "Without them, it might have sailed through the Legislature and no one would have been the wiser until it was time to sit at the bargaining table."

Unfortunately, the Fabulous 14's flight wasn't enough to stop the Wisconsin Legislature from passing the bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public workers. The state Senate found a way to pass the bill without the Democratic senators Wednesday night, and the state Assembly voted in favor of the measure on Thursday. Gov. Scott Walker has vowed to sign the measure.

The fight in Wisconsin has drawn international attention to a trend that Democrats say is a push by Republicans to dismantle public unions. The move is alarming to African-American leaders such as Harris and the NAACP because a disproportionate number of public-union members are African American.

"It's quite significant that 25 percent of African-American college graduates work in the public sector and are represented by public-sector unions," Hilary O. Shelton, the NAACP's Washington-bureau director and senior vice president for advocacy, told The Root. In support of workers, last weekend celebrities and other attendees of the NAACP Image Awards in Los Angeles wore red-white-and-blue ribbons.

"Wisconsin is just the tip of the iceberg," Shelton continued. "We're seeing there are plans being made in about two dozen states across the country to limit collective bargaining rights of workers in some capacity, including in Ohio. Quite frankly, the political dynamic is one that would support this fight. Republican legislators believe they can get something like this through. People have to organize and continue to fight for what they've gained."

Blacks in Public Unions: A Path to the Middle Class

Last year, African-American workers were more likely than whites, Asians and Hispanics to be public-union members, making up 15 percent of the membership, according to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The membership of black workers remains high even as the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions overall shrank by 612,000 between 2009 and 2010 to 14.7 million. In 2010 the union-membership rate -- the percentage of wage and salary workers who were members of a union -- was 11.9 percent, down from 20.1 percent in 1983.

Public unions, which came of age at about the same time as the civil rights movement, became the gateway for millions of blacks to rise to the ranks of the middle class through state, city and county jobs as teachers, secretaries, garbage collectors, police officers and firefighters. Union membership has brought significant benefits to these public employees. Full-time public-sector union workers last year reported median usual weekly earnings of $917, while those who were not represented by unions had earnings of $717.

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