Pictured in the above photo is UC Berkeley labor economist Steven Pitts.
SAN FRANCISCO—GOP attacks on public-sector jobs and unions will disproportionately affect blacks and women, according to a new analysis of employment data by a labor-policy specialist from the University of California, Berkeley.
“We found that blacks are much more likely to be employed by the public sector than are whites,” said Steven Pitts, an economist with the university’s Center for Labor Education and Research, where he focuses on employment issues involving the black community.
One in five African-American workers are employed in public sector jobs, Pitts said, versus one in six white workers and one in ten Latino workers. He said blacks are 30 percent more likely to hold such jobs than whites.
For black men, the public sector—everything from police officers and firefighters to sanitation workers and government clerks—is the largest employer, providing 18 percent of jobs. For black women, it’s the No. 2 employer, accounting for 23.3 percent of jobs.
By comparison, the public sector employs 14.2 percent of white male and 19.8 percent of white female workers.
Terrible Timing for Black Workers
The assault on public-sector employment could not come at a worse time for blacks, who have been much harder hit by job losses—and cuts in the social safety net—than the workforce as a whole.
The jobless rate for blacks was 15.7 percent in January, versus than 8 percent for whites and 9 percent for the population overall, according to the Monthly Black Worker Report published by Pitts and his UC Berkeley colleagues. Although the unemployment rate for whites has been edging down in recent months, for blacks, it remains stuck near historically high levels.
Pitts’s new analysis looks at jobs data on African Americans from just before the Great Recession (2005-2007), which he and his colleagues published in a report last July. That study pointed out that, as bad as the employment picture looks now, “this is not a new trend. Things weren’t great for black workers before the recession, either,” Pitts says.
When Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker and mainly GOP lawmakers in Ohio, New Jersey and other states, as well as Congress, started pressing for widespread layoffs and drastically curtailed collective-bargaining rights, Pitts and his colleagues decided to re-examine the data, focusing just on public workers.
“If you talk with people engaged with the black community, you know that the public sector is an important niche of black employment,” Pitts said. “Despite all the talk about cutbacks, no one has been talking about how this would have a disproportionate effect on the black community.”
Civil Rights and the Public Sector
Pitts traces the high percentage of black workers in the public sector to the civil rights movement in the 1930s and ’40s. “Historically, blacks pushed for better employment opportunities in both the private and the public sector,” Pitts explained, adding that the federal government proved more receptive than private companies or local governments.
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Fair Employment Practices Committee and opened civil service jobs to African Americans. Then President Harry S. Truman desegregated the military in 1948. “As a result of this activism, we saw blacks begin to get a niche in the public sector,” Pitts said.
The fight for collective-bargaining rights is another “important but often overlooked part of the black civil rights narrative,” Pitts went on. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis pushing for the right of city sanitation workers to unionize when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
For blacks and others, “the best anti-poverty program is union organizing,” the UC Berkeley Labor Center notes on its website. “Though African Americans have significantly higher poverty rates than whites, blacks’ unionization rates actually exceed those of whites at both the state and national level,” the site says.
Black union members earn about one-third more than their nonunion counterparts, the site says, citing 1999 data. White union members do better than nonunion workers by about 15 percent.
Black-White Wage Gap Is Narrower in Public Sector
In his new analysis, Pitts also looked at median wages. Just as in the overall economy, whites and men in public-sector jobs earn significantly more than blacks and women. But the racial disparity is narrower in than public-sector jobs than in the workforce as a whole.
Overall, white men earn about one-third more than black men. But in the public sector, the difference is smaller—25 percent. Overall, white women earn 17 percent more than black women, but in the public sector, the disparity is down to 12.2 percent.
Observing that the public sector has brought more parity to wages between whites and blacks, Pitts emphasized, “ Unions and civil service protections have played a significant role in reducing wage disparities.”
Still, black women in public-sector jobs only make a median wage of $15.50 an hour, compared to $17.39 for white women. Black men earn a median wage of $17 an hour, versus $21.24 for white men and $18.38 for the sector as a whole.
One reason for this wage disparity, Pitts said, is that blacks are more apt to have lower-paid public jobs. Among blacks working in the public sector, 40.5 percent of men and 46.5 percent of women are at the bottom-third of the pay scale. But 43.3 percent of white men hold jobs in the upper-third of the wage scale.
Much of the outrage over Wisconsin Gov. Walker’s actions center on his targeting of the state’s female employees. In his attempt to bust public-sector unions, the GOP governor, who was elected last November, has exempted police and firefighters’ unions, whose members are mostly male. Instead, he is going after unions in professions dominated by women, such as teaching and nursing.
But the effects on black workers will also be profound, Pitts said, especially if lawmakers around the country follow Walker’s lead.
“A lot of times, when people think about racial discrimination, they think about someone in a Klan sheet,” Pitts noted. “It’s important to understand that even if someone like Scott Walker does not express an overt prejudice toward blacks, their policies still can have racial impacts that are unconscious and widespread.”
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