Presidential candidate Donald Trump delivered a speech in August 2016 in which he addressed his remarks to the African American community, urging Black voters to “try Trump,” asking “what the hell do you have to lose?” Few Black voters accepted that invitation, and Trump’s victory came over their widespread opposition.
Within two years a Supreme Court decision enabled by Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch put the lives of public sector unions on the line: the Janus v. AFSCME decision ended fair-share representation in government unions, posing an existential threat.
The connection between those two events went little noticed at the time. Now, the release of a new report presented by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and several member public sector unions, Advancement Project California and the Los Angeles Black Workers Center, the answer to Trump’s original question comes into sharp focus.
“An Ongoing Demand for Los Angeles: A Bright Future Requires Organizing More Black Public Sector Union Workers” (http://thelafed.org/2019report) shows that unionized public sector jobs have formed the bedrock of Black community health and wealth, and that Black workers and their communities stand to lose enormously from threats to those unions.
“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.”
With qualitative and quantitative research, this report shows how vital unionized public sector jobs are to Black communities facing disproportionately high unemployment, underemployment and poverty rates. Findings include:
Higher wages. Union workers in Los Angeles earn 27 perdcent higher wages than their non-union counterparts. Black public sector union workers have higher earnings than non-public sector workers and are more likely to earn incomes in every income bracket over $40,000.
Community stability. Numerous Black workers told surveyors that union employment helped them purchase or stay in their home.
Better benefits. Significantly more public sector union workers than non-public sector workers receive health, vision, dental and retirement benefits. 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.
Longer careers. 44 percent of public-sector union workers have been in their jobs for more than 15 years, while 65% of non-public sector workers have worked at their jobs for less than 5 years.
The report also includes interviews with leaders and members of public sector unions who give personal accounts of the difference a quality job makes in their lives.
“I’ve been active in my union for 15 years,” says Collee Fields, Training 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.” Fields credits her job’s benefits with allowing her to care for her daughter and grandson throughout her daughter’s kidney transplant.
“For me, my job helps me take care of my family of four without struggling,” says Tiffany Hall, an LAPD 911 Dispatcher and a member of AFSCME 3090. “I’ve been working since I was 15, and this is the first job that has helped me become self-sustaining. This is also my first union job. It’s allowed me to save money and pay off all my debt. My husband stays at home to care for our two children, and it gives me time to participate in the union more. The union benefits me in that it helps me keep my job, promote and makes me feel secure. It also benefits us all as a whole.”
The report comprises 24-question surveys conducted with 730 Black workers, including 549 in the public sector and 181 employed in the private sector. Six unions facilitated contact with their members: AFSCME 741, AFSCME 2325, AFSCME 3090, AFSCME 3947, SEIU 721, and SEIU 1000.
“Black workers in public service help their communities every day when they go to work,” said Michael Green, regional director for Service Employees International Union Local 721, “and then they help them out again when they bring middle-class incomes and stability home with them afterwards.”
The report was sent alongside an open letter (http://thelafed.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/open_letter.pdf) to City and County policymakers, inviting collaboration on the development of programs to ensure access to public employment.
“The clear message to local leaders and voters is that strengthening public sector employment and creating pipelines for our Black community to access those jobs pays enormous dividends,” said Rusty Hicks, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. “The message to the forces campaigning to threaten these jobs is that we take your attacks personally. And you can expect us to fight back.”