Middle-class Black neighborhoods are feeling a tight squeeze as the longest federal shutdown in United States history drags on. Though the focus of the economic strains in Black households has been on furloughed federal workers, the Los Angeles Black Workers Center released a report Friday that suggests growing concerns in the public sector resulting from the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) decision.

According to the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE), 12.8 percent of union-represented workers nationally were Black as of 2017.

Among the union-represented Black workforce, federal and public-sector employees are confronting hardships. In the federal sector, the government shutdown strain the Black middle class. On the public-sector front, a recent Supreme Court decision threatens to drain union resources.

In June 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in Janus vs. AFSCME that public sector unions must represent all workers employed by cities and states even if the employee does not pay union dues and fees. 

The Guardian reports Black federal employees are disproportionately affected by the longest government shutdown in United States history. According to Farah Ahmad, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress writing during the 2013 government shutdown, competitive government paychecks lifted generations of Black people into the middle class. The Guardian adds that Prince George’s County in Maryland, where the highest concentration of middle-class Black Americans live, is heavily impacted by the shutdown because most residents are public sector and federal workers.

Across the country, Black federal workers are experiencing fallout from the shutdown as well. Blacks make up 12 percent of the U.S. population but account for more than 18 percent of the federal workforce, according to a 2014 study by the Partnership for Public Service.

Cheryl Eliano, District 10 national vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees, represents nearly 70,000 federal workers. Essential members are required to report to work without pay, and the furloughed members are on leave without pay.

“This also affects our raise[s]. We’re supposed to get a 1.9 [percent] raise this month,” Eliano said. “If we continue in this shutdown, we won’t get it.”

Eliano’s union and others have filed lawsuits seeking back pay for their members. As of Jan. 11, Congress passed legislation to provide retroactive pay to furloughed federal employees. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said the president plans to sign the bill.

Andrew J. Perlmutter, an attorney at Passman & Kaplan in Washington, D.C., and member of the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), highlighted the limits of the retroactive pay measures.

“There are quite a number of government contractors who have been put out of work that is not necessarily covered by the Senate Bill 24,” Perlmutter said. The New York Times on Saturday reported that Paul Light, a professor at New York University who studies federal workers, estimates 4.1 million contractors are affected by the shutdown.

In addition to federal union membership, experts say public-sector union affiliation also contributes to Black economic growth. The Los Angeles Black Workers Center attributes the economic impact of union representation to the growth of the Black middle class in the Los Angeles County area. In a newly released LA Black Workers Center report, the center found that in the LA metro area, on average, a public-sector union employee made $28, compared with nonunionemployees’ $22.

According to Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, executive director at the LA Black Worker Center, the Janus decision has the potential to weaken collective bargaining power in the public sector. In June, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a union employee who sought to opt out of paying dues and union fees and maintain union representation.

“We could see that the implications are devastating for Black workers,” Smallwood-Cuevas said. “If cities, counties, school districts, higher education campuses, the post office jobs suddenly became low-wage jobs where workers had no protection, we know that would be a death knell for so many of our Black middle-class neighborhoods.”

MLK’s last march

The Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, 2014. (Photo Credit: lazyllama / Shutterstock.com)

In the six months since the Janus decision, Black federal and public organized labor forces have been encountering the same battle that Martin Luther King Jr. fought in Memphis, Tennessee, just before his death—an intertwined struggle of economic and racial disparities.

Following the deaths of two Black sanitation workers in Memphis, as many as 1,300 Black sanitation workers walked off the job in February 1968. T.O. Jones, an AFSCME-supported sanitation employee who had attempted to organize the workers, demanded the city recognize the workers’ union, increase wages and improve conditions for sanitation workers.

Jerry Wurf, the national president of the AFSCME at the time, considered the Memphis sanitation workers’ protest more than an economic strike. He called the actions a “social struggle” in the union’s documentary. King, who was in the midst of working on the Poor People’s Campaign, also saw the significance of the protest. On March 18, 1968, he traveled to Memphis and spoke to more than 25,000 people at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple. 

“Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality,” the civil rights leader told the crowd. “For we know, that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”

Today, King’s question highlights the issues of Black federal employees who missed their paychecks due to the shutdown and Black public employees who have concerns about a weakening of their collective union voice.

Related Headlines

Black People Will Hurt the Most From the Government Shutdown

Why Did the Russians Target African-American Voters to help Donald Trump?

Passing of the Anti-Lynching Bill—The Year of Righting Wrongs

Black Union Labor and Civil Rights

The relationship between Black workers and organized labor is historically complicated. As the National Archives notes, in the 1930s, “a large number of [American Federation of Labor] member unions did not permit African Americans to join their rank.” 

“Since the second world war, Black workers have found employment opportunities in the public sector that they hadn’t found in the private sector,” said William Jones, a history professor at the University of Minnesota.

Following World War II, Black labor unionism became part of a wider campaign for civil rights. The March on Washington, where King led protesters and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, focused on the intersection of civil rights and labor movements. During King’s last demonstration in Memphis, racialized economics was prioritized.

Jones, the author of The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights, said King’s last message in Memphis highlighted the integral role of labor. According to Jones, King saw a devaluing of the sanitation workers despite their work being critical to public health.

“He put it as all labor has dignity,” Jones said. “By going on strike, the sanitation workers were asserting the dignity of their own labor.”

Societal impacts to federal employees and public sectors

Black federal employees have already vocalized damages they have recently incurred. Lorie McCann is the president of the National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 10 in Chicago. McCann is one of many furloughed IRS workers.

Some of McCann’s members are unable to afford their prescription bills that can cost as much as $200.

“I received a call because I have a member whose kids are about to go back to college,” McCann said. “They have to figure out how they are going to get them back and then how they are going to pay for it.”

Henry Norom is the president of AFGE Local 148 and a TSA worker. Norom acknowledged the importance of national security but is frustrated with the loss of his family’s second household income.

Norom and his wife are even considering if they should not eat and allow “the kids [to] eat first.” Norom also questioned the helpfulness of back pay, “What is back pay going to do for late fees?” Norom said he has a member whose credit is damaged due to the loss of his paycheck.

“A single mother called me to decide between feeding her children and putting gas in her car to come to work,” Norom said. “It gets worse from here.”

In the public sector, employees Tiffany Hall and Collee Fields fear the loss or reduction of benefits they receive from their employers through their unions’ negotiations.

Fields is the second-term president of AFSCME Local 4737. Since the Janus ruling, Fields now has to represent public sector employees that do not pay union dues.

“The Janus decision is not fair,” Fields said. “Someone who is not paying union dues gets the same raises, get’s the same benefits, get’s the same retirement. That’s not paying your fair share.”

“Just recently, my husband had to have a procedure that cost a lot of money. Our health care took care of a good portion of that. I attribute everything that I have now to being part of a union,” Hall said. “I don’t think there are many employers out there that would be willing to do all of the things our job does for us if we did not have the union there.”

How can Black employees protect their economic interests?

AFSCME Local 3090 President Carmen Hayes-Walker advises union-represented employees to understand that paying dues also attributes to the workers’ appearance of strength.

“I have to remind our members that their supervisors are union members too,” Hayes-Walker said.  Additionally, Hayes-Walker believes her members don’t realize that “even when management may say snide and ugly things about being in a union” management belongs to their own set of union organizations.

Hayes-Walker says that although the Janusdecision presents challenges, her union’s outreach efforts have yielded a slight spike in membership.

According to Hayes-Walker, in some workplaces, employees didn’t even know they were not members of the union. “We’ve done a few organizing drives where we asked them to sign a membership card and they did.”

Jessica A. Floyd is a candidate for her master’s degree at Medill-Northwestern University focusing on politics. You can follow her on Twitter @JessAFloyd.