Black Workers Could Save Dying Unions

The South might be the perfect place for unions and black workers to save each other.

Black workers and unions in the south could help one another, says Marc Bayard, director of the Black Worker Initiative at the Institute for Policy Studies.
National Journal
J. Weston Phippen
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J. Weston Phippen
June 5, 2015, 12:12 p.m.

As the coun­try ad­ded 280,000 jobs in May, un­em­ploy­ment re­mained un­changed this month, though it was down al­most a full point since last year. Over­all, black work­ers had seen con­sec­ut­ive months of fall­ing un­em­ploy­ment, drop­ping to 9.6 per­cent last month, the low­est since the re­cov­ery. But May ruined that with a 10.2 show­ing for the group (com­pared to 4.1 for Asi­ans, 4.7 for whites, and 6.7 for Lati­nos (6.7).

It’s not all bad news though. Marc Ba­yard, dir­ect­or of the Black Work­er Ini­ti­at­ive at the In­sti­tute for Policy Stud­ies, has lately found reas­on to feel op­tim­ist­ic: uni­ons. “Black work­ers are at a very, very fra­gile and crit­ic­al place right now,” Ba­yard said. “And the labor move­ment is at a fra­gile and crit­ic­al mo­ment, too.”

It may seem out­land­ish to be­lieve that uni­ons could save any­one these days. They’ve reached an all-time low in mem­ber­ship. Today, about one-in-ten people are card-car­ri­ers, down from the hey­day of the 1950s, when mem­ber­ship stood at around 35 per­cent. The Mid­w­est, the former uni­on bas­tion, has turned on them—es­pe­cially in Wis­con­sin where Gov­ernor Scott Walk­er has just about de­clared war on uni­ons.

“How can the two cham­pi­on each oth­er?” Ba­yard says of black work­ers and uni­ons, “that’s really the crux of it.

Black work­ers are more likely to join uni­ons than white work­ers. And when they do, black work­ers earn more than their nonunion coun­ter­parts, about 27 per­cent more per hour, ac­cord­ing to a study by the Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic and Policy Re­search.

By 2020, around 65 per­cent of jobs will re­quire some post sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port by Geor­getown Uni­versity. This could mean trouble for young blacks, who have one of the low­est edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment rates in the coun­try.

On the bright side, black work­ers with low edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment are among the most helped most by uni­ons. Black work­ers without a col­lege de­gree saw their hourly wage in­creased by 20 per­cent, ac­cord­ing the the Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic Policy Re­search study.

And where is the best place for this to hap­pen?

The South, of course.

“Get on the wave, get in­volved and be a long term, au­then­t­ic part­ner,” Ba­yard says. The tim­ing is near per­fect for a real eco­nom­ic justice move­ment of uni­ons work­ing in the South with Afric­an Amer­ic­ans.”

More than half of the coun­try’s black pop­u­la­tion lives in the South, where uni­ons are prac­tic­ally non-ex­ist­ent. Poverty levels, wages, and edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment are some of the worst in the na­tion.

“The pub­lic con­scious­ness has been raised by the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment and the demon­stra­tions,” said Sean Thomas-Breit­feld, co-dir­ect­or of the Build­ing Move­ment Pro­ject, an or­gan­iz­a­tion that sup­ports so­cial change move­ments. “The pub­lic ac­tions have cre­ated an op­por­tun­ity to have dif­fer­ent con­ver­sa­tions about the eco­nom­ic prob­lems that Afric­an Amer­ic­ans are fa­cing in this coun­try.”

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