When I was growing up in Cleveland, some of the most respected people in my neighborhood were the folks who worked for the city, county or state. My father was a city bus driver who took great pride in getting people safely to and from their jobs every day. My mother was a community college teacher who loved preparing her students for success.
It turns out that my family was far from unique: Twenty-one percent of all black workers are public employees, making the public sector the largest employer of black workers, according to a recent University of California, Berkeley study (pdf). The wages that African Americans earn in the public sector are higher than those we earn in other industries. Furthermore, there is less wage inequality between African-American workers and nonblack workers in the public sector than in other industries.
The author of the study, Steven Pitts of Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, emphasizes that his analysis is based on the national workforce. In cities where African Americans are a larger proportion of the population, “the importance of the public sector to black employment prospects” is even greater.
Another recent finding makes Pitts’ conclusions even more significant. According to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., although the economy is showing some signs of recovery, African Americans in 2010 had unemployment rates of at least 15 percent in severely depressed states — levels not seen since the Great Depression.
These revelations mean that the plans by radical governors to rob public employees of their rights, shrink pay and benefits, and cut jobs will have a disproportionate impact on black families and communities. In other words, white America’s bad cold has turned into pneumonia for black America — and it will get worse if ultraconservative politicians cripple public-sector unions, making them incapable of protecting their members.
Both of my parents were active union members because they knew that the labor-rights and civil rights movements were the way for African Americans to achieve upward mobility and equality. In fact, labor unions and civil rights organizations have worked hand in hand in just about every fight for equality and economic justice that our nation has known.
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he was in Memphis, Tenn., on behalf of 1,300 sanitation workers, members of AFSCME Local 1733. They were on strike for more than a bigger paycheck; as their “I am a man” signs made clear, they wanted respect for the work they did. King stood with them because he recognized that freedom requires that workers have a voice, the ability to provide for their families and the power to shape their destinies.