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.

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

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.

“Dismantling bargaining rights will disproportionately affect African Americans,” Terry Smith, a professor at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago, told The Root. A scholar of employment and labor law and voting rights, Smith says that unions have really been part and parcel of African Americans’ movement into the middle class. Taking away those bargaining rights will stop that progress, he maintains. “People ask what’s so important about bargaining rights. It’s one thing to go to your boss as an individual and demand a raise. It’s quite another thing to go to the boss as a group of thousands of employees and demand a raise.”

The specific history of the disproportionate number of African-American public employees stems from the late 1950s and 1960s, when the government first began to allow organizing. That move helped dismantle the most obvious form of bias that had prevented African Americans from achieving a higher quality of life: job discrimination.

“The government presented the first readily available opportunities for blacks to work,” he said. “Alongside that history, you have a broader history of blacks and unionization. It’s not a history specific to the public sector, because the public-sector union came into being after the National Labor Act was passed in the 1930s. That act regulates only private-sector unions. It was only some years after that that we had state and local governments emulate the federal act and allowed for the unionization of government workers.”

Private unions, such as the United Auto Workers, have been on the decline for decades as they have lost membership, the result of attrition and globalization. Smith said that the nation’s heavily unionized manufacturing sector disintegrated, and high-wage manufacturing jobs were replaced by service-industry jobs that paid 23 percent less. As private-sector unions lost power, so did public unions.

Unions: Republican Targets

“Unions have been losing membership and ground for decades, which is why private-sector membership is small,” Smith said. “Republicans view this as a ripe and right moment to extend their campaign against unions, which has forced the issue into the public consciousness.”

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker and other Republican lawmakers are trying to close a $137 million budget gap by limiting public-employee collective bargaining rights and requiring workers, except police officers and firefighters, to contribute more to their pension plans and pay higher health care premiums.

In Ohio this week, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will consider Republican Gov. John Kasich’s Senate Bill 5 to cut public workers’ collective bargaining rights, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Last week the bill narrowly passed the Senate 17-16. Six Republicans joined all 10 Democratic senators in opposing the bill.

Charles Butler, a black Republican who is host of the controversial talk show The Other Side With Charles Butler, on the Chicago radio station WVON 1690 AM, lambasted the Wisconsin Democrats for fleeing the state to avoid voting on the budget-repair bill. He said they should be ousted from office.