Bearing the brunt of a new witch-hunt

January 27, 2011

The bipartisan campaign against "privileged" public-sector workers threatens to erode some of the gains of the civil rights and Black Power movements.

IN THE run-up to the midterm elections, overheated rhetoric from both Republicans and Democrats identified public-sector workers as a central factor in historically high budget state deficits and the collapse of local economies.

Public-sector workers have been described as the "haves"--as an "elite" group of workers who are living high on the fat of tax dollars, while the rest of the workforce wallows in job insecurity, lack of health care, foreclosure and falling wages.

This sentiment was best captured by billionaire media mogul Mort Zuckerman's outrageous claim: "Millions of public workers have become a kind of privileged new class--a new elite, who live better than their private-sector counterparts. Public servants have become the public's masters."

The fact that the billionaires and millionaires who populate the U.S. Congress and the corporate punditry are driving this debate should raise the first eyebrow. Rich white men, who make up the vast majority of the Congress, debating whether any group of workers makes too much money would be laughable, except these elite actually control the flow of dollars that determine the quality of life for millions of working people in this country.

But when the dreaded "public-sector employee" is unmasked, the accusations about their profligacy can be shown to be that much more unfounded. The Republican Party's vow to cut up to 15 percent of federal jobs while also demanding a wage freeze of up to five years on the salaries of federal employees threatens to have a disproportionately disastrous impact in African American communities--which are already straining under the weight of high unemployment and the foreclosure crisis.

Today, almost 45 percent of all Black women who are employed work in a public-sector job, and more than half of all African Americans professionals are employed by some sector of the state.

According to the report "Austerity for Whom," released by United for a Fair Economy earlier this month:

Blacks are 30 percent more likely than the overall workforce to work in public sector jobs as teachers, social workers, bus drivers, public health inspectors and other valuable roles, and they are 70 percent as likely to work for the federal government. Public-sector jobs have also provided Black and Latino workers better opportunities for professional advancement.

BY THE mid-1960s, public-sector jobs at the federal, state and local level became the key way that millions of African Americans escaped from job discrimination in private-sector employment and created a middle-class standard of living. According to historian Thomas Sugrue, "No institution played a greater role than government in breaking the grip of poverty and creating a Black middle class."

Public-sector work dramatically expanded over the course of the 1950s and '60s, from 5.5 million workers in 1947 to more than 11 million by 1967. Almost 10 million of those jobs were at the state level. Federal subsidies and spending in urban areas dramatically increased over the course of the 1960s--from 2 percent in 1960 to 12 percent by 1970.

For more than 30 years, the federal government had an official policy of ignoring the needs of residents, disproportionately Black, in inner cities.

The government subsidized the movement of white workers and the middle class to outlying suburban areas by making it cheaper to buy suburban houses than rent or buy in the inner city. Massive highways systems subsidized by federal dollars paved the way out of the cities and destroyed urban communities with the state's liberal use of "eminent domain" to seize neighborhoods and then build the highways over them. Urban renewal programs throughout the 1950s and 1960s used federal dollars to bulldoze Black communities under the auspices of clearing slums, while using the newly cleared land to redevelop downtown districts or create other development projects that excluded African Americans.

In Chicago, for example, federal urban renewal dollars were given to the University of Chicago by the administration of Mayor Richard J. Daley to raze surrounding Black neighborhoods and allow the expansion of the university in the 1950s and 1960s. The notorious high-rise public housing complex, the Robert Taylor Homes, was built to house the thousands of African Americans displaced by urban renewal.

The deliberate destruction of Black urban spaces for the middle part of the 20th century laid the basis for the urban rebellions that would rock the U.S. for most of the 1960s. By the end of 1968, more than 500,000 African Americans had participated in the almost 300 urban uprisings that swept the nation.

By mid-1968, President Lyndon Johnson assembled what became popularly known as the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes of "civil disorder" in the U.S. To the shock of the Johnson administration, which tried to bury the commission's report, the findings implicated "white racism" and the government itself for the chronic urban unrest. Its introduction read in part:

We have visited the riot cities; we have heard many witnesses; we have sought the counsel of experts across the country. This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal. Segregation and poverty have created...a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.

What white Americans have never fully understood--but what the Negro can never forget--is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain, and white society condones it. Social and economic conditions in the riot cities constituted a clear pattern of severe disadvantage for Negroes compared with whites, whether the Negroes lived in the area where the riot took place or outside it.

Negroes had completed fewer years of education and fewer had attended high school. Negroes were twice as likely to be unemployed and three times as likely to be in unskilled and service jobs. Negroes averaged 70 percent of the income earned by whites and were more than twice as likely to be living in poverty. Although housing cost Negroes relatively more, they had worse housing--three times as likely to be overcrowded and substandard. When compared to white suburbs, the relative disadvantage is even more pronounced.

The Kerner Commission found that in all the riot-torn cities, the three recurring complaints of African Americans revolved around police brutality, unemployment and housing.

Not much was to be done about police brutality as Republicans and Democrats alike used the specter of urban unrest and "civil disorder" as the pretext for an expanded campaign of "law and order," which Richard Nixon would ride into the White House in 1968. But in the realm of housing and unemployment, both the Johnson and Nixon administrations aggressively implemented programs aimed at integrating at least a section of African Americans into the American mainstream.

In housing, the Johnson and then Nixon administrations attempted to expand homeownership among low-income African Americans, believing that if Blacks were actually able to own their own homes, they would be less likely to engage in destructive rebellions. In terms of employment, the federal government undertook an aggressive campaign of affirmative action and opened up federal, state and local municipal jobs to African Americans in unprecedented ways.

THE EXPANSION of social spending as a result of the anti-poverty War on Poverty and Great Society programs created many new public-sector jobs on both a national and local level. The Model Cities program, for example, was created with the mandate of "maximum feasible participation" on the local and even neighborhood level. More than 2,000 community action programs were set up around the country.

The idea was to get African Americans who had either participated in riots or were sympathetic to them directly involved in governance and oversight of social programs. The Housing and Urban Development (HUD) department attempted to merge both housing and employment needs by mandating in Section 3 of the HUD Act of 1968 that low-income people be hired "to the greatest extent possible" for development projects that got federal dollars.

Even under Richard Nixon, opportunities for African Americans opened up in the aftermath of Nixon's Philadelphia Plan.

The Philadelphia Plan created affirmative action in the building trades in response to years of long campaigns by African American tradesmen attempting to burst through the nepotism and racism that historically kept them locked out of high-paying construction jobs.

In 1969, the Nixon administration--with multiple agendas, including appeasing African Americans because the threat of continued rioting hung in the air, but also with an eye toward driving down wages in the construction trades by introducing Black labor--now required that any federal contractor wishing to do work on federal projects must guarantee through quotas what number of African Americans would be hired. While this approach was initially compelled by a specific situation in Philadelphia, it quickly spread throughout the country, and the Supreme Court upheld the demand for quotas.

But beyond this specific initiative, a massive expansion of state institutions from the late 1960s through the 1970s--as a result of everything from anti-poverty programs, to the military, to new regulatory agencies and beyond--opened up new work opportunities for millions of Americans.

The federal government took the lead in opening up job opportunities for African Americans because of a recognition of the potential impact of continued Black rebellion in the inner cities--and so officials at the federal level were much more vigilant about enforcing affirmative action and prioritizing the hiring of African Americans and women. But state and local officials took their lead from the federal government, and job opportunities began to open up for African Americans locally as well.

This was especially true as the number of Black elected officials began to rise. The exertion of Black political power put African Americans in positions to hire other Black people. According to one political scientist:

By 1970, half of Black male college graduates and more than 60 percent of college-educated Black women were public employees, compared with 35 percent of white men and 55 percent of white women. Although 18 percent of the labor force in 1970 were government employees, 26 percent of African Americans worked for the government.

Between May 1973 and May 1974, 64 percent of all new federal employees came from minority groups. Black workers also found that in municipal and government work, the wages were higher--15 percent higher than in the public sector for Black men, and 20 percent higher for Black women--and the benefits were better.

Even today, Black men in the public sector make 85 percent of what white male public-sector workers make. This is in sharp contrast to the 57 percent white male wages in the private sector. According to one study, African American women who work in government jobs make more than white women in government jobs.

PUBLIC-SECTOR work didn't always automatically mean high wages and good benefits. Rather, these gains had to be wrenched from a state that had historically looked at its public-sector labor force as "public servants."

President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order giving federal workers the right to unionize--though not the right to strike--in 1960. Federal postal workers were the first to act on this, unionizing in 1966. Despite the federal gains, however, historian Michael Honey described more difficult efforts locally, saying, "state and local governments acted as if public employee unionizing was a crime."

This hostility led to sharp conflicts during late-1960s unionization attempts for low-wage municipal labor in hospitals and sanitation, which had a disproportionate impact on Black labor. The most famous of these conflicts played out in Memphis, Tenn., when an illegal strike of Black sanitation workers caught the attention of Martin Luther King Jr., who would be assassinated in Memphis while on a trip there in support of the workers.

Honey described the conditions of Black sanitation workers in Memphis before their successful union drive: "[L]ow wages forced them to draw housing subsidies, food stamps or other sorts of federal and state welfare payments that subsidized the city government for the rotten wages it paid to the working poor."

Despite the hostility, however, the American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees (AFSCME) organized tens of thousands of state and local public-sector workers throughout the late 1960s. In just an 18-month period, AFSCME's membership jumped from 250,000 to 375,000.

But the growing militancy of public-sector workers in their demands for better pay and better working conditions was not just demonstrated in the willingness to join a union. It was also displayed by a growing number of illegal, wildcat work actions. Young workers entering the public sector brought with them the radicalism of the Black Power revolt and the antiwar movement that shaped the late 1960s.

Thus, while strikes among public employees--still illegal--were seldom known before, by the mid- and late 1960s, they were regular occurrences. In 1966, there were 142 strikes by public employees--by 1968, there were 412 public employee work stoppages.

Teachers, also part of the public sector, were likewise not immune to illegal strike activity. In 1967 alone, 105 work stoppages among teachers were recorded. According to historian Robert Zieger:

In 1966 alone...teachers staged 33 walkouts, as compared with 26 for the entire previous decade. By the early 1970s, scores of teachers' strikes annually delayed school openings. Nor were teachers the only militants. By 1967, some 250 public-employee strikes erupted, quintupling the previous one-year record. Most of these disputes were traditional labor battles, with unions seeking wage increases and fairer promotion, seniority and discipline procedures, or attempting to resist the efforts of school boards and government agencies to increase workloads and intensify productivity standards.

The most remarkable of these was an illegal strike in the U.S. Post Office in 1970. More than 180,000 workers went out on strike--two-thirds of them African American--for higher wages and better conditions, which were quickly eroding under new "professionalization" standards being imposed on postal workers.

One worker explained how the workers came to the point of illegally striking: "Last July, postmen received a 4.1 percent pay increase as part of a two-year-old package. But the carriers and clerks, viewing their pay raise in the light of the 41 percent hike that Congressmen had voted for themselves the previous February, were infuriated rather than satisfied."

By the time economic recession took hold in the early 1970s, public-sector workers were being blamed for local and state budget crises--similar to today. But despite the vitriol directed at public-sector employees and their unions, higher pay, pensions and good benefits are what all workers should be fighting for. Moreover, Republican demands to cut federal employment by 15 percent, combined with the devastating jobs cuts on the state and local level, threaten to worsen Black America's continuing spiral into economic freefall.

Disproportionate Black employment in the public sector was the result of federal and state anti-discrimination laws that were products of the civil rights movement and affirmative action policies put in place to make sure Blacks, who had historically been excluded from the benefits of government subsidized employment, would finally reap the benefits.

Today, official Black unemployment stands at almost 16 percent, despite recent gushing about improvements in the economy and the addition of more jobs. Net worth in African American families is at historic lows, driven into the ground by the foreclosure crisis that has disproportionately affected African American communities.

Public-sector workers are not nameless, faceless bureaucrats. Rather, they are disproportionately women and African Americans--hardly the face of a "new elite" acting as "the public's masters." These were jobs that were won as a result of the civil rights movement and the Black Power struggles of the 1960s.

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