Skip directly to content

Black Workers Matter

Asserting that black lives matter also means that the quality of those lives matters. This report takes its title from the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which was founded following George Zimmerman’s acquittal of murder in the death of black teenager Trayvon Martin. In the time since, #BlackLivesMatter has served both as an umbrella and a focus point for protest and activism in response to the violent deaths of black people across America at the hands of law enforcement officials. The movement hit a peak in the latter half of 2014 as grand juries failed to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City. The explosion of political protest that arose in Ferguson and other cities has inspired a new wave of activism that goes well beyond the individual cases of these black people who lost their lives.

Asserting that black lives matter also means that the quality of those lives matters. Economic opportunity is inextricably linked to the quality of the lives lived by blacks in America. Several years past the Great Recession of 2008, the American economy has recovered, and workers and families in most demographic groups have begun to participate in that recovery. Yet African Americans have yet to feel those benefits. Focus on the recession obscures the fact that our country has been harboring a black jobs crisis for many decades, and there are no signs on the horizon of an immediate resolution of that crisis.

But, with this new wave of activism, the possibility arises of bringing greater attention to innovative approaches that may pose lasting solutions to some of the worst aspects of the black jobs crisis. The emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement represents a moment when the potential exists to introduce issues that impact blacks, and especially black workers, into discussions about policymaking and community organizing in ways that have often proven difficult in the past. The Discount Foundation and the Neighborhood Funders Group present this report to thoroughly examine the black jobs crisis, its impacts and contributing factors, and possible ways forward and out of it. It is entitled #BlackWorkersMatter to both honor the movement and situate worker organizing in the broader context of building black power for human rights and dignity.

#BlackWorkersMatter comprises six sections. The first and longest report focuses on black worker organizing, its history, and the challenges it faces, relying heavily on interviews from activists and leaders prominent in the worker organizing field. It is followed by four reports that address various aspects of the black jobs crisis, its causes, its effects, and the potential for black worker organizing to provide a path to its resolution. These reports, while they stand as powerful individual pieces, together offer a comprehensive picture of the status of both black workers and the struggle for economic opportunity for African Americans. The final section of #BlackWorkersMatter is a recommendations section.

A common theme of all the reports that make up #BlackWorkersMatter is the structural barriers still holding back African Americans in the workplace so many decades after the Civil Rights Movement and the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, which forbids racial discrimination in employment. Today, when America’s first black president sits in the White House, it can be tempting to focus on the progress that has been made and the victories won over the past fifty years. But such a focus can distract from the ways in which our nation has failed to address the pervasive inequality, particularly economic, that continues to constrain the prospects of African Americans, and the important work that is still to be done.

As Algernon Austin points out in his report “The Importance of Good Jobs to the Social and Economic Health of Black Communities,” while blacks can today be found in just about any occupation, the relative number of jobs available to blacks, as measured by the black unemployment rate, has stagnated, and the quality of those jobs, as measured by wages and benefits, has actually declined. Austin notes the dismaying reality that the unemployment rate for blacks has been at least double that for whites for the last fifty years. Unemployment for the American population as a whole due to the recession topped out at around 8 percent in 2010. But even during the best economic times, black unemployment exceeds 8 percent; the annual unemployment rate for blacks has averaged 12 percent over the past fifty-two years. As of March 2015, the black unemployment rate stood at 10.1 percent, compared to a white unemployment rate of 4.7 percent. Moreover, while the college completion rate for blacks has quadrupled since 1970, the rate of employment has not improved.

High unemployment is fundamentally bad for black communities. Austin points out that a lack of jobs ultimately means higher poverty rates, poorer educational outcomes, increases in criminal offending, and lower marriage rates. Increased job opportunities are essential to complete equality for African Americans, as well as to healthy and prosperous African American communities.

A recurrent theme in the reports that make up #BlackWorkersMatter is the impact of gender and its intersection with race in determining the economic landscape for black working women. Linda Burnham explores the dimension of gender fully in her report “Gender and the Black Jobs Crisis.” Carrying the double- burden of dealing with both racism and sexism on a daily basis, black women have been especially hard hit by the recession and have particularly lagged during the economic recovery. Black women account for 7.4 percent of hourly workers but 10.1 percent of those earning minimum wage. Burnham presents data that show that both African Americans and women constitute a disproportionately high share of workers in low-wage sectors and occupations, including health support occupations, fast food, and retail sales. In some cleaning and caretaking occupations, for example, the labor force is over 80 percent female, and blacks are overrepresented at rates that are double or triple their share of the employed. Those occupations in which both women and blacks are highly concentrated are particularly likely to pay low wages.

Low wages are at the core of the black jobs crisis. Steven Pitts’ report “Low-Wage Work in the Black Community in the Age of Inequality” examines the low-wages dimension of economic inequality in black communities. Low wages for black workers are part of a deep trend that has hit workers across demographic groups. Between 1938 and 1973, hourly compensation generally kept pace with labor productivity, with employees enjoying increases in wages and benefits roughly equal to the country’s economic growth. In the ensuing decades, however, wages have failed to keep up; between 1973 and 2013, while productivity increased by 74.4 percent, hourly compensation rose only 9.2 percent. In addition, wealth is increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, exacerbating the gap between the rich and poor in America. The richest 1 percent of the population now receives nearly 20 percent of all income in the United States, compared to only 7.7 percent in 1973. While these trends hurt Americans across the board, black workers have been impacted disproportionately. Between 2010 and 2012, 38.1 percent of black workers earned low-wages compared to 25.9 percent of white workers.

Pitts argues that many of the strategies organizers and policy makers use to combat these manifestations of the economic barriers faced by African Americans are outdated and were better suited to post-World War II America, whose economic and political climates fostered equal distribution of growth. He argues for a re-examination of the traditional approaches to these recalcitrant problems and a search for new, innovative ones.

One such approach may present itself in the form of a partnership between black workers and unions. Though the challenges to achieving economic justice for black workers are persistent and the statistical data can seem discouraging, the resurgence of activism in African American communities gives us reason for hope. Throughout American history, blacks have drawn upon collective action in their struggles for freedom, equality, justice, and, although the power of labor has been waning in recent decades, blacks, especially black women, are drawn to unions and union organizing. In “Partnership between the Labor Movement and Black Workers: The Opportunities, Challenges, and Next Steps,” Marc Bayard argues that a partnership between black workers and the labor movement holds potential as a vehicle for civil rights activism that could perhaps tear down the barriers of structural inequality that keep many African Americans in low-wage jobs with little to no opportunity for advancement. Such a partnership, Bayard proposes, would not only promote economic opportunity for blacks and for all Americans, but also revitalize the languishing labor movement at a time when unions are widely perceived to be losing their influence and relevance.

Community organizing, particularly organizing of black workers, has emerged as an important weapon in the arsenal against the structural inequality that underpins the black jobs crisis. Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, in his report on the organizing landscape for black workers, looks at the range of worker organizing taking place in black communities, using interviews with twenty-nine community organizers, national experts, and foundation staff members as his primary source material. Thomas-Breitfeld notes that the activism that has begun to flourish under the #BlackLivesMatter banner in the wake of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere in the United States has increased the sense of urgency and energy in community organizing around black issues. It has also underscored the need to be frank and honest about race and to recognize the unique impact of anti-black racism, rather than hide behind “color blindness.”

Black worker organizing is a relatively new approach in community organizing. Of the thirteen local or state- based community organizing groups Thomas-Breitfeld interviewed for this report, only three were founded before 2005. Some of the interest in this new field can be attributed to the Discount Foundation which, in the early 2010s, made a decision to shift its funding specifically to support black-led organizing and black worker organizing. This decision was based in part on a recognition that a color blind approach to issues related to economic inequality and worker justice led to the neglect of specifically African American experiences. Following the example of Discount and other foundations, more and more organizations began to explicitly name race as an important consideration and to focus more on the hardships faced by black workers.

The organizations examined in Thomas-Breitfeld’s report represent a diversity of organizational styles, types, and traditions, and represent different perspectives on the importance of black leadership to the organizing effort. All, however, are united in their desire to improve the economic prospects and ultimately the lives of black workers.

The final section of this report presents a list of recommendations gleaned from the data and analysis that underpin the preceding sections of #BlackWorkersMatter. These recommendations are offered to organizers, funders, and policy makers who want to resolve the black jobs crisis, increase economic opportunity for black workers, promote prosperity in black communities as a whole, and generally improve the lives and prospects of blacks in America.

Download the full report below.

Publishing Organization: 
Discount Foundation
Related Issues: