Gutting Unions Hurts the Black Middle Class

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.

"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.

"When you elect legislators to represent you, there is nothing in the legislative process that says I will leave if I lose a position," Butler continued. "I'm just going to shut down and abandon my office, which is what they did … Those people are not doing their job, and they should be relieved of their duties."


He says it's a shame that unions are being abandoned, because the problem is not with the entities themselves but with leadership. Today's leadership, he says, is a bloated bureaucracy that is focused not on the needs of the rank and file but on the needs of top executives who "fly around in private jets."

"I know my father's union membership gave him equal pay with white men, and it gave us a great standard of living here in America," Butler said. "But that is not what's going on today."


Shelton, on the other hand, scoffed at the notion that unions are bloated bureaucracies and that the so-called Fabulous 14 are un-American.

"It's not un-American at all," Shelton said in response to a question. "If the Democratic legislators were there, it would be a quorum. They are trying to buy time to find a solution. It doesn't undercut principles of their office. They are not leaving because the job is too difficult. I think they are showing great courage and a willingness to take the fight beyond walls of the chamber. That's what's important."


For her part, Harris, whose union represents 8,000 teachers, substitutes and educational-support professionals, said the fight is just beginning.

"Blacks used to work from sunup to sundown and receive the same pay as white workers who clocked in for eight hours," said Harris, whose father was a public-sector-union member for years in his job as a corrections officer. "Unions gave us a 40-hour workweek, salary parity and other benefits. These are freedoms we fought for and won. Why let go of them so easily?"


Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter