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labor Black Workers, the Public Sector and the Future of Labor Unions

The current crisis facing the public sector, a major location of African American workers, along with the crisis facing organized labor, should present a moment to reconsider old assumptions. A multi-union effort to organize Southern public sector workers could be something close to a game-changer on several levels, not the least being the potential impact on Southern politics and Southern unionization. And, as the saying goes, as goes the South, so goes the USA.

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The attacks on the public sector over the last several years by the political Right have brought forward increasing concerns about the impact of such assaults on communities of color generally, and workers of color in particular.  Economists, such as Dr. Steven C. Pitts at UC-Berkeley Labor Center, have called attention to the impact that such attacks have in depressing the conditions of Black workers.  Given that the public sector is a major location of African American workers, these attacks have meant that the loss of such employment has not only resulted in tragedy for individuals and their families, but has also created growing economic sink-holes in African American communities as middle income employment evaporates.

In the course of this discussion, there has been one side to the question of the Black worker and the public sector that has received very little attention.  This revolves around the public sector, particularly in the South, as a location for the potential growth of the union movement despite the attacks noted above.

In the middle 1990s, during the early years of the John Sweeney reform presidency at the AFL-CIO, I engaged in a series of discussions on the public sector with members of the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Department in my role as Education Director and later as Assistant to the President of AFL-CIO.  These discussions were consistent with arguments advanced then by the Black Workers for Justice in North Carolina that large concentrations of Black workers in the public sector of the Southern states were a potential base for substantial growth of the union movement, both at the level of actual numbers as well as influence in geographic regions.  SEIU was slow and inconsistent in addressing this, and the AFL-CIO largely ignored this question.  While some unions, e.g., American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Communication Workers of America, paid varying levels of attention to organizing public sector workers, such attention frequently depended on the ability to convince a governor to grant public sector collective bargaining (usually through an executive order).  Thus, a union might place more attention on convincing a political authority to grant collective bargaining than in organizing workers and communities to demand collective bargaining.

The current crisis facing the public sector in the USA along with the crisis facing organized labor should present a moment to reconsider old assumptions.  A multi-union effort to organize Southern public sector workers could be something close to a game-changer on several levels, not the least being the potential impact on Southern politics and Southern unionization.  And, as the saying goes, as goes the South, so goes the USA.

Organizing public sector workers, particularly non-federal workers, is quite different than organizing private sector workers.  In each state there are specific laws that permit or refuse to permit the right of workers to organize unions in the non-federal public sector.  Some states, such as North Carolina, have been moving in an increasingly regressive direction.  The long-term impact of this regressive tendency remains unclear but it is probably safe to suggest that anti-worker repression will make organizing and organization more difficult, and as a result, the forms of organizing and organization will necessarily change.

In organizing public sector workers one is organizing communities and is directly taking on, for better or for worse, elected leaders since the latter are the actual employers of public sector workers.  Winning the right to unionization and collective bargaining, therefore, not to mention winning an honorable collective bargaining agreement, becomes far more than a matter of lobbying and negotiations but is nothing short of a long-term mass campaign.  To win respect for the rights of public sector workers, communities need to be engaged and a large-scale alliance must be built.  The 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, where Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered, was an example of a public sector effort that took on the form of a mass, community campaign.  The issues were not seen as restricted to the workplace, but were understood to be components of a larger scale struggle for social and economic justice.

As organized labor seeks locations for new growth, it needs to reconsider public sector workers in the South.  Here are some things to be understood:

  1. Black workers are among the most pro-union demographic in the USA. Employers know this, which is why in some sectors of the economy, they go out of their way to exclude black workers.
  2. Organizing public sector workers in the South would necessitate a community-level mobilization.  Organizing for public sector collective bargaining and for an honorable agreement will necessitate the support of communities.  This would involves building key alliances to not only support Southern public sector workers but to also build alliances to transform the public sector itself, making it more responsive to the needs of the people.  One of the central alliances will be with Black legislators in each state.  The Black legislative caucuses on the state level in the South tend to be among the most progressive of state legislators.  They are a natural ally for a Southern public sector union movement, and indeed, a natural ally in transforming Southern politics.
  3. Through such a unionization effort, organized labor could begin to punch holes in the so-called “Red state” South and begin to create areas of resistance to the reactionary policies being advanced by Southern Republican (and many Democratic) politicians.  A Southern campaign for public sector unionization could, indeed, be a campaign for economic justice in the South challenging the entire framework of economic development that has been followed whereby business and government are permitted to trample over workers.
  4. To pull this off, there would need to be a multi-union effort additionally drawing in labor organizations that are not themselves unions.  There are worker centers and other forms of organizations that are and have been undertaking efforts to organize Southern workers.  These are key allies of a Southern public sector unionization effort.

This effort identified here will go nowhere without the Black worker.  At the same time, such an effort could bring thousands more Black workers into the union movement helping to transform the character of the movement itself.  Such a prospect should not only ignite interest but help us to realize that success would place the union movement on the cusp of becoming a central component of a new labor movement.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is an internationally known racial justice, labor and global justice activist and writer.  He is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, a syndicated writer, columnist for The Progressive, and the co-author of Solidarity Divided and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions.