|Photo h/t jonesor on Flickr|
For as long as unemployment data by race have been collected (about 39 years), black unemployment has been roughly double that of whites. Today, the black unemployment rate is an alarming 16 percent. If discouraged workers are included, that number would be much higher.
The causes of disproportionate unemployment in the black community are many and varied, but economists believe that the main three are the lingering effects of discrimination, the educational attainment gap and economic segregation.
The erosion of manufacturing jobs in recent decades, coupled with the anti-government attack on public-sector jobs, have worked together to exacerbate these historical inequalities.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates that between 1979 and 2007, manufacturing jobs held by blacks fell from 23.9 percent to 9.8 percent. The auto industry, for example, has had above-average employment for blacks for a long time, but it has crumbled, meaning that the loss of jobs has been devastating for that community.
Similarly, the assault on public-sector workers — teachers, social workers, food inspectors and more — has a clear racial impact. United for a Fair Economy’s 2011 State of the Dream report notes that blacks are 30 percent more likely than the overall workforce to hold public-sector jobs, and 70 percent more likely to work for the federal government.
Unemployment levels experienced in the black community continue to concentrate high levels of poverty in already-struggling communities, which has profound social effects in perpetuating a downward spiral of crisis. Children growing up here are exposed to high rates of crime and violence, to low-quality foods, and to some of the worst-performing schools, with a lasting impact throughout their lives.
Policymakers in Washington must take bold action to break this cycle. Leaders need to target job creation and retraining strategies in communities hardest hit by the Great Recession. Targeting job creation strategies will help lift struggling black communities in ways that the “shovel-ready” focus of previous job creation efforts cannot.
That’s one reason the Congressional Black Caucus in 2009 called for more job creation funding for economically distressed communities. As unpalatable as it is to the austerity mindset in Congress, increased federal government spending is necessary to keep people working, including black Americans.
This op-ed was originally published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on October 25, 2011.
Foreclosures continue to decimate communities around the nation, with black neighborhoods being the hardest hit. Some pundits and politicians point to federal policies that encouraged homeownership in low- and moderate-income communities, coupled with reckless behavior on the part of greedy homeowners, as the crux of the problem. One example is the statement by Fox News reporter Neil Cavuto that "loaning to minorities and risky borrowers is a disaster." To the contrary, our recent research demonstrates that it is outside investors living in other, predominantly white neighborhoods, not local homeowners, who account for the adverse impact on our nation's black communities.
Observers ranging from Credit Suisse to the Center for Responsible Lending estimate that about 6 million families have lost their homes to foreclosure and project that 12-15 million families altogether will lose their homes before the crisis is over. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury $17 trillion in household wealth was eliminated between 2007 and 2009 and more losses are sure to come. Such losses reduce property taxes, cut consumer buying power for local businesses, and weaken the ability of municipalities to provide vital services. In the end, all households, businesses, and non-profits suffer if they or their neighbors are foreclosed and lose their homes.
Recent foreclosure activity and the subsequent costs are not race neutral. According to the Center for Responsible Lending approximately 8 percent of African-American and Latino families have lost their homes to foreclosure compared to 4.5 percent of white families. United for a Fair Economy has estimated that a third of black households and 40 percent of Latinos are at risk of falling out of the middle class and into poverty as a result of the foreclosure and related economic crises.
So what accounts for the concentration of subprime lending and foreclosures in minority neighborhoods? The culprit, at least in Louisville, is investors, primarily white investors who do not reside in the affected communities. In our research we found that in 2007 and 2008 there were approximately 2,000 foreclosure sales each year in Louisville. There were 39 per census tract (a rough approximation of a neighborhood) in black communities compared to 20 in white tracts. More telling is the fact that there were 15 foreclosures on properties owned by investors rather than owner-occupants in black communities compared to two foreclosures in white areas. A close examination of foreclosed properties in black neighborhoods found most owners were white and often living miles away in suburbs.
It is investors seeking a quick profit, not homeowners, who are the real problem in black neighborhoods. We suspect Louisville's story is not unique. Louisville is right in the middle of this pack, ranking 103 out of 203 metropolitan regions in the rate of foreclosures in recent years.
Several factors account for why a property goes into foreclosure and why foreclosure rates are higher in some neighborhoods than others. Race is certainly not the only factor, and may not even be a consideration when other variables are taken into consideration.
We controlled on a range of variables that contribute to foreclosures -- crime rates, housing values, household income, employment levels, vacancies, number of high-cost loans -- and found that the rate of foreclosures for owner-occupants was no different in black and white Louisville neighborhoods. That is, race was not a factor in accounting for differences in the rate of owner-occupied foreclosures among Louisville neighborhoods.
But when we examined investor foreclosures, neighborhood racial composition was the primary predictor. Not only was race a significant factor in accounting for different levels of investor foreclosures among Louisville neighborhoods, race was the single most important factor, even more important than the rate of high-priced or subprime lending
So black communities have been hardest hit, but not because of the federal policies pointed to by Cavuto and other conservative observers like Lou Dobbs, Charles Krauthammer and editorial writers from the Wall Street Journal and a range of other newspapers. Their prime target is the federal Community Reinvestment Act that prohibits redlining. Yet as researchers with the Federal Reserve, National Community Reinvestment Coalition, and several other government, non-profit and academic institutions have demonstrated, this is simply nonsense. [...]
How would you feel if...
- Job cuts by your employer forced you to assume twice the work load, which lead to upwards of 9 out of 10 workers experiencing work-related pain;
- Your employer refused to provide tools that would allow you to do your job with fewer risks for injury;
- Your employer consistently failed to address workplace safety violations, and even fought legislation to protect you and your co-workers;
- You and many of your colleagues were fired without just cause;
- You were all replaced with temp workers — that you were actually expected to train — who your employer paid only minimum wage with zero benefits; and
- When you decided, enough is enough, your employer resorted to harmful retaliatory tactics?
You'd probably feel cheated, burned, disregarded as a human being, right? Well, many are facing this unfortunate reality, and they need your support.
UNITE HERE, has reached out to UFE and other allies in the economic justice movement because Hyatt Hotels Corporation is bullying workers across the country for the sake of profit, and they can't take them on alone.
Here's one Hyatt worker's story:
My name is Cathy Youngblood, and I am a housekeeper at the Hyatt Andaz in West Hollywood. Today I am joining thousands of other Hyatt workers on strike across the United States.
I believe in hard work, but living in pain is a different story. I have to take medication regularly because my wrists and shoulders hurt from having to lift 100-pound mattresses over and over again every day as I change the bedding. Other Hyatt housekeepers have been permanently injured by the grueling work we do.
Not far from my hotel in West Hollywood, at the Hyatt in Long Beach, California, workers have no union. Conditions there are even worse. My sisters are required to clean twice as many rooms in one eight-hour shift, leaving them just 15 minutes for each room. That's 15 minutes to change bedding, scrub the bathroom, dust, vacuum, empty the trash, and change linens, among other things. It's no surprise that women are getting hurt.
Today, I strike—not just for myself or for a fair contract at my hotel—but for our right to stand up to Hyatt wherever they are abusing housekeepers.
We know we can't take on a global giant like Hyatt alone.
We hope you'll join Hyatt workers and UNITE HERE on the frontline of what is truly a fight for all workers' rights.
Even if you can't join a picket line, there are three things you can do:
- Join the online picket line and let a Hyatt housekeeper know that you stand with her in this struggle.
- Tell a friend about the struggle to end the abuse at Hyatt.
The relentless focus on federal budget-cutting has burned up so much of the country's political oxygen that it nearly choked off dialogue on a more immediate, urgent concern: poverty.
Two well-known Americans tried to move this point to the front of the bus last month with their "Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience." [...]
The instigators of the bus tour, PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornel West, did the nation a favor by turning the spotlight onto the very real needs of poor Americans. They feel "invisible" and "disposable," Smiley said during the tour, which ran from Minnesota to Memphis, Tenn.
The sentiment is not surprising. The poor have been left behind by what little economic recovery there has been since the 2008 crash. And in Washington's deficit-obsessed political climate, the talk is all about slashing government — not poverty rates.
Millions of people are without jobs, homes or hopeful futures. Minorities are disproportionately afflicted: Blacks and Hispanics experience unemployment and poverty at far higher rates than the rest of the population does. [...]
[T]he "Call to Conscience" tour was constructive because it pushed the problem of poverty back into the center of a national conversation that had been hijacked by fiscal hawks who see only the cost, not the value, of government.
Unlike the abstractions of long-term deficit projections, poverty is a tangible, here-and-now reality. The country waged a "war on poverty" in the 1960s, but the problem — fed by structural changes in the U.S. economy, policy choices, social shifts and other factors — grew in ensuing decades. Unfair mortgage practices and the epic recession triggered in 2008 exacerbated the trend, wiping out years of progress.
Today, disparities in income, educational attainment, home ownership and family wealth are growing. The rich are getting richer, while the ranks of the poor are poised to expand as government shrinks and job creation remains stagnant.
The employment cuts are likely to have an outsized effect on minority communities, according to the group United for a Fair Economy's "State of the Dream 2011" report. The federal government is an important source of employment for blacks, data indicate.
Rich vs. poor inequities, and the hopelessness that can accompany them, are poisonous to democracy. In the final analysis they are likely to be every bit as destructive, if not more so, than large budget deficits.
Nearly 15 percent of the population — including an estimated 15 million children — live below the federal poverty line, which is about $22,500 a year for a household of four. "Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses," according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, of the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University.
"Using this standard, 42 percent of children live in low-income families," the organization reported. Rates are highest among black, Latino, and American Indian children, data show. [...]
A nation that looks to tax cuts and budget slashing as the answer to 44 million living in deep poverty — many with little hope of overcoming it — is either deluded or uncaring.
Neither of those terms represents the America we know and love.
We are a nation based on the principles of equality and opportunity. Let's live up to them by confronting the factors that lead to entrenched poverty.
Promoting "personal responsibility" is an important key to this challenge. But so is government, which can help communities get through the worst of times and build better foundations for the future.
Economic growth that provides jobs for unemployed and underemployed Americans is vital. But we must not pretend that poverty can be reduced by putting government on a starvation diet.
The issue of poverty belongs at the center of the nation's political priorities, not at the fringe. Smiley and West raised its profile. Their bus tour has ended, but we hope that a new era of understanding has begun.
The immigrant rights movement recently enjoyed a moment of victory in Massachusetts. The Student Immigrant Movement (SIM), an alliance of young immigrants and supporters, completed an 11-day vigil in front of the Massachusetts State House, protesting hateful budget amendments that would have stripped the immigrant community of civil and human rights, and thus, the Commonwealth of humanity.
One SIM member described his experience:
“I did not feel comfortable, no one did. Some people would pass by and say horrible things to us. One man made a hand gesture as though he was shooting us one-by-one. It scared me. But our cause is important, and we knew we had to step up.”
The result of SIM’s tireless efforts was the removal of 8 of the 9 anti-immigrant amendments. The only amendment to pass denies access to the state health plan for undocumented individuals. Such an affront to human rights, unfortunately, may only be resolved with intelligent and holistic action at the federal level.
The failed budget amendments would have encouraged racial profiling and housing denials to children and families, and would have mandated an E-verify system for employers, which would have been a terrible idea for several reasons. Gabriela Garcia of Change.org explains:
“E-Verify has proven costly and ineffective. It frequently misidentifies Latino and new American citizens with common last names as undocumented and fails to identify 50 percent of undocumented workers as unauthorized. Furthermore, opponents argue that its implementation drives work further off-the-books.”
A radically conservative and near-sighted movement driven by the corporate-funded Tea Party pushes relentlessly to antagonize and deny rights and services to immigrants, document or not. A common argument is that undocumented workers do not pay taxes, and therefore should not have access to public services. This is unequivocally false.
In 2011, undocumented workers paid more in taxes than even some major U.S. companies, such as General Electric, which paid zero tax dollars into the public coffers. And yet, these companies continue to enjoy government subsidies and the protections and benefits of being a U.S.-based company. Meanwhile, undocumented workers are scapegoated and scrutinized, and will receive no publicly administered services in return for the billions of dollars they contribute in state and local taxes.
Social progress, such as that made with the Abolitionist and Civil Rights Movements, has never come easy. It requires an informed and unified movement that transcends any individual agenda, is able to penetrate petty politics and maintains the common good of all people at its core. Immigrant rights groups, like the Student Immigrant Movement, need exactly that now more than ever.
The Massachusetts Student Immigrant Movement (SIM) have launched MassHope 2011, a round-the-clock vigil on the steps of the Massachusetts State House to prevent the passage of anti-immigrant amendments in the state's budget.
Last year, SIM staged a 19-day vigil to prevent similar measures from passing, and they succeeded. They recognized that the victory was only made possible by a highly engaged community of human rights supporters, which included documented and undocumented immigrants, citizens and a coalition of organizations working to build a better world.
Despite popular support in the Bay State for SIM's cause, a relentlessly dismissive Republican contingent is hell-bent on advancing this inherently hateful legislation.
The national immigrant justice movement suffered a disappointing setback at the close of 2010 with the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass the DREAM Act. That served as a reminder to SIM and other statewide coalition members of the hard work that lies ahead.
This movement will move forward with ever-growing tenacity, refusing to rest on past successes. But they'll need more and more individuals and organizations in Massachusetts to stand with them. Sign SIM's petition here, and visit their website to learn how to join the movement.
A few photos from the MassHope 2011 press conference:
Ty, what's your story, and how did you get involved in popular education for social change?
Whew! That’s a packed question.
Well, I’m a black man, eldest of seven and raised in Harlem and the South Bronx. I came of age during the social ferment of the 1960s – a time that shaped my understanding of the world as it was, and quickened my hunger to play a part in shaping the world as it might be.
The fight for social justice found me at a young age. I was six-years-old in 1955, when I discovered those photos from Emmett Till’s autopsy and funeral in a magazine in my parents' livingroom. Till had been brutally beaten and murdered by a group of white men because he was young and foolish, and had broken one of their most sacred cultural taboos: he forgot his “place” in White America.
Those horrifying images brought my childhood to an abrupt end, and I became the black kid who refused to comply. The old folks called it being “hard-headed.” But, to me, I wasn’t supposed to be the only dark face in those “accelerated” academic programs in elemetary school. I asked myself if I should, as instructed, submissively “know my place” and stay in it. Now, at 62, perhaps I should’ve burned out or sold out years ago, retreating from the struggle filled with cynicism and despair. To make a long story short, I was, I wouldn’t, and I haven’t and won’t, because I’m in this fight for the duration – mine, at least.
By the mid-70s, I’d already invested nearly a decade in the struggle against Dr. King’s “Triple Evils” – racism, militarism and poverty. Throughout high school, I tutored young children failed by the public schools in the project’s neighborhood center. Then, just a month into my first semester of college, the movement called and I left to do anti-draft outreach in the ‘hood.
At the time, grassroots efforts against poverty were ostensibly driven by the notion that the poor were entitled to “maximum feasible participation” in programs meant to benefit them.
I was a confirmed believer, but that lofty ideal was rarely realized. Over time, I grew increasingly frustrated as “participation” devolved into empty tokenism (superficial placation or perfunctory consultation) and Lyndon Johnson’s rhetorical war on poverty morphed into the GOP’s protracted war on the poor and working class.
I was first exposed to theories of social and experiential learning and organizational development while working for the Virginia State Economic Opportunity Office, the state-level liaison for anti-poverty initiatives in Virginia. I had the opportunity to apply and test these new learnings in a range of community venues to address issues of power, agency and voice.
I focused on two areas: 1) team-building and strategic planning to establish a multidisciplinary task force on child care and development, and 2) troubleshooting political tensions between local elected officials (the all-white old guard) and a community action agency (mostly-black led grassroots challengers). I learned that much of what I was doing with community-based organizations was being called “popular education.” I brought those learnings to subsequent work as an organizer for various grassroots initiatives, progressive campaigns, and progressive coalition efforts.
Currently, my focus is in the arena of public education, where issues of voice, agency and alliances pit well-connected insiders (politicians, bureaucrats, corporate interests, university or think tank wonks, venture philanthropists, education entrepreneurs, and corporate media) against those with the most at stake in the ed-reform process (students, parents, teachers, and communities).
Why is popular education important for movement building? What sets it apart from more conventional educational models?
Barry Checkoway's literature on social change distinguishes six distinct categories of community change strategies: 1) issue-focused mass mobilizations; 2) confrontational social action; 3) government-sponsored citizen participation; 4) expert advocacy; 5) local development (self-help); and 6) popular education.
The first five approaches emphasize securing either a “seat at the table” or a “piece of the action.” They focus on the immediate need, rather than sustainability, and primarily seek to alter the existing distribution of resources and benefits on behalf of the traditionally locked out or marginalized, rather than transforming the longstanding arrangements of wealth, status and influence, which create those conditions in the first place.
Instead of building the capacity of community members to solve their own problems, these strategies focus narrowly on enlisting outside forces and resources to “fix” the community. They fail to acknowledge that a "seat at the table" doesn't always guaruntee the ability to influence, or even know, what's happening under the table. Likewise, the size of one's piece of the pie is ultimately determined by those serving the pie.
In contrast, popular education promotes a kind of ‘transformative populism’ by which socially- and politically-marginalized peoples are encouraged and enabled to pursue the power to influence the decisions affecting their lives and livelihoods.
As a strategic response, pop-ed is informed by a critique of actual social, political and economic relationships. Additionally, the popular education strategy can support other change strategies by providing an analytical platform enabling community members to choose the most appropriate strategies for particular situations.
Ty, would you share with us a specific instance in which you witnessed the effectiveness of popular education?
The D7 RoundTable was a community-based organization focused on the struggles against racism, violence, and poverty in Greater Roxbury – Boston’s poorest, brownest, most culturally-diverse, and politically-marginalized neighborhood. For eight years, from 2000 to 2008, D7 convened a monthly grassroots public policy forum, bringing residents of Roxbury and Boston's other progressive communities together to examine, debate, and exchange opinions on a host of critical issues and public institutions.
In the spring of 2001, Boston’s public schools were being criticized for an evident “achievement gap,” as reflected in the scores of mandatory standardized tests. D7 dedicated one of its regular monthly forums to exploring the issue – specifically, the factors contributing to the “gap” in student test performance.
The nearly one hundred community members who attended the forum were seated at tables of with 8 to 9 of their neighbors. On each table was an information packet providing a detailed profile of a selected area school district or local high school.
The popular education exercise was divided into three rounds. In round one, participants were tasked with becoming “experts” on their data packets and answer three questions: 1) What do you see in the data? 2) What, if anything, stands out to you? and 3) How might this explain the “achievement gap”?
In round two, the tables were reconfigured to mix the research teams. This is called the “jigsaw method." The new teams were then tasked to compare and contrast their findings on the districts or schools examined, based on a new set of questions: 1) What similarities and differences stand out to you? 2) Which items appear most relevant to student achievement? and 3) What is the problem and where should Boston’s reform efforts begin?
The final round was devoted to a full-group discussion focused on describing the problem (test score disparities), its contributing factors (student body by race, income, language proficiency, student suspension days, curriculum access), and specific recommendations for change. participants displayed an impressive grasp of the data and its implications, often making surprising connections and inferences. Many participants shared with us how much they enjoyed the exercise, some even expressing their surprise over the how much they now understood doing policy research.
The only downside was that the exercise wasn't connected to an actual organizing initiative for school reform. Nevertheless, after ten years, a number of individuals who participated in the event and are now involved in local reform efforts tell me they remember the exercise clearly and use similar models in their own work.
One of the principles of popular education is that education must be a reciprocal process between facilitators and participants. It is an acknowledgement that no individual has all the answers, and that our unique lived experiences allow each of us to act as both sudents and teachers. What's one of the most important things you have learned in your work with other groups?
I start from the general assumption that most of what we think we know, just ain’t so. By this, I mean that we must be alert to testing our assumptions and risking exposure to new ideas. This is not the same as blindly accepting “expert knowledge," because we need to test that as well. But it does appreciate that the most useful knowledge is grounded in real world experience. Knowledge is best constructed as a collective effort – it is never fixed and it must be subject to challenge once it fails to explain new experiences.
How can others around the country get involved in popular education for social & economic justice?
To say, “get involved,” in popular education is an accurate formulation. Pop-ed is a medium for constructing people’s knowledge, a strategy for raising consciousness and informing appropriate action. It’s more a means to an end than an end in itself.
There are already a number of national organizations and networks that folks can get involved with that have a history of using pop-ed techniques as a medium for progressive organizing.
Among them are the Right to the City coalition, the Applied Research Center, the Highlander Research and Education Center, the People’s Institute for Survival & Beyond, Project South and various local expressions of people’s theater, a.k.a., “Theater of the Oppressed."
What are your short- and long-term hopes for the progressive movement both within the U.S. and in the global community?
In the short-term, I’m hoping to see the emergence of the broad, multi-racial and united front against war, racism and poverty envisioned by Dr. King more than 40 years ago. This is a major piece of unfinished business for progressives. In the long-term, I’m just hoping to be around long enough to finally enjoy the fruits of that movement.
“I want to live in America.”
I was twelve years old, shelling peas with my mother in our kitchen in Limuru, Kenya, when I first uttered those words. My mother paused and said to me, “Well, then you better study hard and do well in school. The door will only open for those who knock.”
My mother’s advice was a guiding force for the nine years to follow. I completed high school with excellent scores, and went on to receive my B.A. at the University of Nairobi. Then in 1994, while working as an organizer in my community, I received a scholarship from USAID, which allowed me to build on my local development efforts through a course in Washington, D.C.
Finally, I’d made it to the land of opportunity! America was in many ways true to my imagination: full of kind and generous people who were curious about life in other places, highly resourced institutions that worked efficiently, excellent public transportation, beautiful buildings and fast cars all around me.
But, walking through some of the poorer neighborhoods of D.C., I encountered something I hadn’t imagined. I found that much of this country’s wonderful offerings did not reach all of its citizens. Some of the extremes of poverty I witnessed weren’t much different from those of the Nairobi slums.
It made me wonder: How could so much need exist in this land of plenty?
The poorest D.C. residents clearly had very limited access to productive and meaningful economic opportunities. For some, even the most basic needs went unmet.
I was often asked how it was possible that I, a young woman from Kenya, was able to attend graduate school while so many here are unable to attain even a high school diploma. Many of those baffled by my circumstances were African Americans, who didn’t view a college education as something they could ever reach.
Six months later, I went back home to Kenya, my vision of America significantly altered by the time I had spent here.
More than a decade has passed since my first trip to the U.S. Today, I live here with my family, and have made a career out of understanding the factors that make extreme inequality possible.
If we view economic inequality in the U.S. through a racial lens, it becomes clear that Black Americans have experienced diminished progress in recent decades. For example, from 1947 to 1977 Blacks gained five cents to each dollar of median family income for White workers, but in the three decades since, they have gained only one cent.
The American reality may have been far from a dream for people of color in the 1940's, but upward mobility has since become even more difficult. The stagnation of wages for the lowest earners, depression-like unemployment rates among people of color and increased economic segregation have helped to create racialized pockets of destitution. As a result, people of color depend far more on unemployment insurance and other social safety net programs than do Whites.
This is directly attributable to pre-existing wealth disparities and ongoing economic policies that disproportionately benefit wealthier Americans.
To make matters worse, conservative politicians at all levels of government are calling for drastic and poorly informed budget cuts. Such proposals would be damaging to vital programs such as education, food safety, environmental protection, housing assistance, and community services, to name a few, and would be particularly debilitating to communities of color.
An austerity plan will exacerbate low and middle income Americans’ struggle to make ends meet, causing demand to fall, the economy to contract and the jobs crisis to continue unabated. And, it will only worsen the vast inequalities in our economy.
The American promise certainly beckons, and I am a living testament to the power of its allure. But, without a bold and progressive policy approach to address economic inequality, such a promise will never be fulfilled. Changing this reality will require each of us to join together in a movement for greater equality and justice for all.
Read UFE's report, State of the Dream 2011: Austerity for Whom?, for more on this issue.
This op-ed by Wanjiku Mwangi, UFE's Racial Wealth Divide Initiative Leader, was originally published on April 23, 2011 in The Black Commentator, a magazine that provides insight and analysis on issues affecting African Americans.
Originally posted on Classism Exposed, March 11, 2011
The Wisconsin uprising has become as loud a wake-up call as there has ever been that working America is under attack. Moves by Governor Scott Walker and the Republican majority to steal away the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers – as a false premise for the state’s budgetary hardships – has triggered a national uproar by labor rights supporters.
In spite of all the good organized labor has brought to all American workers – union and non-union alike – union membership in the U.S. has endured constant erosion by the corporate sledge over the past several decades.
The result has been an economic gulf, separating the rich from everyone else.
The top 10 percent of U.S. households own nearly three-fourths of the country’s total wealth; 34 percent is held by the top one percent alone. Some among this very wealthy elite have a profit-lust so insatiable that it’s causing the American middle class to fade from existence, as income stagnates and the unemployment crisis continues.
If Governor Walker succeeds in his anti-union crusade, we could face a system-wide shift that would further obscure the voices of average workers. Attacks on collective bargaining are, in essence, attacks on democracy. To dilute the power of unions is to actively support plutocracy, or rule by the wealthy.
Who Stands to Lose the Most?
What too many of us don’t know is who has the most to lose from attacks on organized labor. Unfortunately, the answer shouldn’t come as a surprise.
When it comes to organized labor, the public sector has served as a far more reliable foothold than the private sector. The more stringent equal opportunity and civil service protections of the public sector offer more agreeable circumstances for historically disenfranchised workers than private sector jobs. For example, the public sector has offered more opportunities for women and workers of color to achieve income parity with white men.
Initiatives such as that of Wisconsin’s Governor to break down public unions will be especially harmful to those who already face a constant battle against workplace discrimination.
A recent report by United for a Fair Economy emphasizes the vital role of the public sector in providing opportunities to people of color, who are burdened not only with the residual effects of past injustices, but also contemporary barriers to upward economic mobility. Today, Black workers are significantly more likely than the overall workforce to hold government positions. Because of that reality, across-the-board cuts to the federal, state and even local budgets would have particularly ruinous effects on Black workers.
If we’re ever to move beyond a jobless recovery, and meaningfully address the disgraceful racial inequality that tars our supposed “civil” society, it is imperative that we preserve the public sector by funding a jobs program that invests in our people and in the longer-term stability of our economy.
Where’s the Money?
The phrase “we’re broke” as rationale for bone-deep budget cuts isn’t just tired, it’s wrong. We’re not broke. We’re still a very wealthy country. The problem, as earlier mentioned, is that too much of this country’s wealth is concentrated in too few pockets. Robert Reich asserted:
You can’t fight something with nothing. But as long as Democrats refuse to talk about the almost unprecedented buildup of income, wealth, and power at the top – and the refusal of the super-rich to pay their fair share of the nation’s bills – Republicans will convince people it’s all about government and unions.
And, not to make a total scapegoat of the GOP, Reich points out the Dems’ misguided politicking:
The Republican message is bloated government is responsible for the lousy economy that most people continue to experience. Cut the bloat and jobs and wages will return.
Nothing could be further from the truth, but for some reason Obama and the Democrats aren’t responding with the truth. Their response is: We agree but you’re going too far. Government employees should give up some more wages and benefits but don’t take away their bargaining rights. Private-sector unionized workers should make more concessions but don’t bust the unions. Non-defense discretionary spending should be cut but don’t cut so much.
The money for a jobs program and other recovery measures exist, but we’re not tapping the most abundant sources.
Let’s demand that corporations stop dashing off-shore to avoid paying their tax tabs.
Let’s tax the high-risk, casino-like investing on Wall Street that so heavily contributed to the financial meltdown.
Let’s restore progressiveness to the personal tax system by raising taxes on the wealthy, who have reaped the most from our economy and are most able to contribute more without sacrificing their livelihoods.
We can raise the top-tier federal income tax rates to their pre-Bush levels (at the very least), and add new brackets for those with remarkably high incomes. We can strengthen the estate tax – a means to prevent the creation of American dynasties and reduce wealth inequality – well beyond its current form. We can bring an end to preferential treatment of investment income – like capital gains and dividends – by taxing it the same as earned income.
And, let’s wean the Pentagon – which now accounts for 58 percent of the discretionary federal budget – off of the taxpayers’ proverbial teat by cutting unnecessary defense spending.
The revenue generated would be more wisely applied to domestic investments. But, investments should be made using a targeted approach that would address chasms of race and class in the U.S.
We’ll first have to establish a shared agreement about the type of society in which we want to live. Will it be one that encourages greed and inequality, or one that provides essential services and opportunities to all of us? Will it be one that provides access to only the financially enriched, or one that’s truly democratic? Will it continue to pit us against one another, or will it inspire togetherness and community?
And, while the historical intersections of the civil rights and labor movements haven’t always been flattering, it would be counterproductive to target unions for a legacy of discrimination that belongs to the nation as a whole. We should embrace the real hope that the two movements can find shared purpose, and move forward as a more diverse, inclusive and, most importantly, unified movement.
Ironically, It may well be Governor Walker’s outrageous attacks on public employees that ignites the very movement he seeks to destroy, and brings the U.S. toward a more just and egalitarian society.