By Steven Pitts
(Originally published by Roll Call)
Growing up in Chicago’s Southside in the 1960s, the saying went around that when America sneezed, the Black community caught a cold. Today, as our country endures what most economists expect to end up as the worst crisis since the Great Depression, Black families can brace themselves for the economic equivalent of a life-threatening bout of pneumonia.
That gloomy outlook is evidenced by February jobless figures for the U.S. that show 8.2 percent of whites were officially unemployed; for Blacks, the figure was 13.8 percent.
Many actions need to be taken to address this economic inequity. One very important step is the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.
This legislation will help to increase workers’ ability to bargain with their employer for better wages, and that’s especially important for Black workers, whose economic problems started long ago.
During the 27 years after World War II, median incomes for Black families rose by 131 percent after inflation, reflecting the migration of Blacks away from the rural South, the gains from the Civil Rights Movement, effective public policies such as the minimum wage laws, and the presence of a strong union movement.
In contrast, between 1973 and 2007 median Black family incomes rose by only 33 percent. This anemic growth rate (mirrored for workers of all races) reflected greater global economic competition, the rise to dominance of the conservative movement whose aim was to weaken pro-worker social and economic policies, and the diminished strength of unions in the face of these transformations.
But for Black working families, it meant adults often were forced to work multiple jobs, high school and college-age youth were forced to sacrifice schooling opportunities in order to earn money for their families, and some household members had to find employment in the underground economy.
When our current recession began, the Black community faced a two-dimensional job crisis: all-too-familiar unemployment and a ghettoization into primarily low-wage work. Two years ago 8.3 percent of Blacks were officially unemployed; at the same time, close to half of all full-time Black workers earned less than $30,000 – which is just under twice the federal poverty level for a family of three.
For the Black community, the Employee Free Choice Act will enhance the chances of earning better pay and benefits by removing some of the current barriers to workers forming a union. And that’s important.
Workers in unions receive 14.1 percent higher wages overall than their counterparts who are not in unions. For Black workers, the advantage to joining a union is even greater – by 18.3 percent. Black workers in unions also have a higher likelihood of enjoying employer-based health care and a pension, compared to their non-union counterparts. These are the type of wage and benefit gains that move people into the middle class.
Maybe this is why Blacks strongly favor passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. A December 2008 poll by Peter Hart and Associates found that 88 percent of African Americans favor the legislation.
Throughout our country’s history, laws have been passed to establish new processes to radically improve the lives of everyday people. For example, in 1935, the Wagner Act set up procedures to help workers organizing unions and helped to develop the blue-collar middle-class. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act opened doors for Blacks to elect thousands of officials who better represented their interests.
Similarly, the Employee Free Choice Act will help a new generation of low-wage workers forge a proud pathway toward economic security.
As we seek solutions for our recession, we must not allow ourselves to simply return to a pre-crisis economy which did not serve any workers well, particularly Black workers. We can seize the moment to build an economy that really works -- for everyone. The Employee Free Choice Act is one crucial tool for that construction.
Steven Pitts, Ph.D. is a labor policy specialist at UC Berkeley and the author of numerous reports on job quality and Black workers.