By Charlene Muhammad
A recent study indicates that Black workers stand to lose critical unionized public sector jobs from threats to unions in L.A. County.
According to the report, “An Ongoing Demand for Los Angeles: A Bright Future Requires Organizing More Black Public Sector Union Workers,” public sector jobs and unions that represent such employees contribute to the economic and social stability of the Black middle class in Los Angeles.
The 730 Black workers surveyed by the Los Angeles Black Worker Center found that L.A. County Black public sector union workers earn more than their non-union counterparts, and report more stable communities and longer careers. In addition, higher wagers and better benefits allow them to care for their families, the workers reported.
The document was produced as collaborative of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, the Advancement Project, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, and six members of the LA Fed whose members agreed to be surveyed (AFSCME 741, AFSCME 2325, AFSCME 3090, AFSCME 3947, SEIU 721, and SEIU 1000).
The unions presented the report to elected officials of the City of Los Angeles and the county via an open letter in the spirit of partnership. Their aim is to find public policy avenues to expand pathways for Black workers to good public sector jobs, jobs they hail as pillar of Black community health.
The feedback has all been positive, according to Michael Green, regional director for Service Employees International Union Local 721.
“I know right now that a pipeline to create more access for our Black community to gain employment in the public sector has not been as fruitful as it should be … One of the things that we wanted to talk about was to create more access to the pipeline and also the attacks on unions,” Green told the Sentinel.
Nationally, according to the open letter, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME declared open season on public sector unions.
The case involves Mark Janus, who was the plaintiff and a a former child support specialist for state government in Illinois. The Supreme Court ruled June 27, 2018 that government employees like him could not be forced to pay a government union as a condition of working in public service. He stated in an online post that he briefly public sector work, and when he returned, even though he didn’t belong to the union for his field, it had power to exclusively represent over 90 percent of state workers in Illinois, and automatically deducted money from his paycheck, whether he supported the union’s politics and policies or not.
Janus called the ruling a tremendous victory for workers’ rights. Union representatives called it a decision that ended fair-share representation in government unions which pose an existential threat.
“Many understood it as part of a decades-long campaign against the public sector overall. It should also be understood as an attack on Black life,” the letter continued.
“That should be shocking, because most of the time 20 percent of Black working adults serving the public sector are working for state and federal or local government and historically, the public sector jobs have been critical in the formation of the Black middle class in America,” said Green.
In honor of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin, who’s birthday was commemorated worldwide on January 21, union representatives wanted to bring the issue to the forefront and rekindle the pipeline to get more community, local and state governments, and elected officials to work with them to create more opportunities for Black employment in the public sector, Green stated.
The workers surveyed further found the L.A. County Black public sector union workers have held their jobs much longer than Black private sector workers. For instance, 44 percent of Black public sector union workers had been in their jobs for more than 15 years, according to the report.
“Our communities aren’t very segregated by income, and when you hurt our middle-class, you hurt all of us,” said Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, founder of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center. “Generations of public service through unionized jobs have allowed families to buy homes and have kept communities together through hard times. By attacking that source of community stability, Janus was a straightforward attack on black life,” she added.
Other findings showed how vital unionized public sector jobs are to Black communities facing disproportionately high unemployment, underemployment and poverty rates. Numerous Black workers told surveyors that union employment helped them purchase or stay in their home and significantly more public sector union workers than non-public sector workers receive health, vision, dental and retirement benefits, according to a release issued by the union collaborative and its partners on January 11.
As well, unionized public sector benefits include education, paid family leave, licensing assistance and paid sick days, which are virtually non-existent among non-public sector workers, the report went on.
“I’ve been active in my union for 15 years,” says Collee Fields, raining and Services Coordinator for the City of Compton and the President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3947.
“My mom was a steward, and my grandfather was in his union when he worked at the MTA. I grew up with the union. It’s been a blessing to have this job. It’s important for the Black community to have greater access to a public sector job like mine,” stated Fields, who credits her job’s benefits with allowing her to care for her daughter and grandson throughout her daughter’s kidney transplant.
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Sentinel.