Unions Rights Affect Black Workers More Than Others

After weeks of protests and wrangling, the Wisconsin State Senate passed a bill that strips public employees of collective bargaining rights. As a growing number of states consider similar measures, public sector workers face a daunting future. A recent study shows that African Americans are far more likely to work for the government than any other ethnic group. The public sector is also the leading employer of black men and the second leading employer of black women. Host Michel Martin discusses the implications of budget cuts for minority workers with Steven Pitts, a labor policy specialist with the University of California, Berkeley and a co-author of that study.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, Wisconsin, of course, has been very much in the headlines. But the push to curtail public workers' bargaining rights and pay and benefits is spreading across the country. Governors are considering similar measures in Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, New York and others.

Now, some might wonder if some workers more than others might be affected by these changes. A study by the University of California Berkeley shows that African-Americans are far more likely to work for the government than any other ethnic group. In fact, the public sector is the leading employer of black men and the second-leading employer of black women.

Steven Pitts is a co-author of that report. He holds a doctorate in economics. He's a Labor Policy specialist at the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California Berkeley. He is also a consultant to labor unions in developing their leadership, and he's with us now from there.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Professor STEVEN PITTS (Labor Policy Specialist, University of California Berkeley): How you doing?

MARTIN: So could you just give us the data? How significant of a - how important is the government as an employer for African-Americans, and why do you think that is?

Prof. PITTS: Well, our study was published last June - July, and we were looking at data, actually, before the recession began. And we pulled information from 2005, 2007. And the numbers said that overall, for black workers, that 20 percent of all black workers worked in the public sector -actually, 20.9. If we break it down by gender, it was 18 percent for black men, and 23.3 percent for black women.

As you said, that was a lot for, overall, for black workers. That was the largest sector, most important sector. It was also the most sector for black men and number two for black women.

MARTIN: In contrast, 14.2 percent of white men worked in the public sector. 19.8 percent of white women, 7.5 percent of Latinos and 14.9 percent of Latinas, women of Latin-American - of Latin heritage were public employees. And why do you think that is? Why is there such a - why is there so much variation?

Prof. PITTS: Well, I think that you found that over the last, say, 30, 40 to 50 years, the public sector had become a niche for black employment. In other words, as blacks began to migrate from the South to the North and the West, in kind of discrimination, the private sector, that the public sector was more open. I'm not saying there wasn't any discrimination in the public sector, but the public sector was more open for black employment.

And with that and with civil service regulations, it made it more a hospital area for blacks to gain employment, compared to the private sector. In addition, we saw, with the expansion of government activity in the '50s and '60s, we saw the need for more black employees, as well.

MARTIN: You also pointed out in your study that there's less variation in salary and income, that there is just more - that you find in the private sector, that there are vast - there's a big gap, let's say, between workers of different ethnic backgrounds and that that gap, while it still exists in the public sector, is far less.

Prof. PITTS: Well, there are two important things we want to mention from our study, aside from the importance of jobs to the black community. One is the fact that these jobs are actual better-paying jobs compared to ones that blacks typically have. And so, for instance, you compare the median wage for black men in the public sector to the median wage for all black men in all employment, we find that those in the public sector, those black men, receive a premium of about 23.6 percent. In other words, for every dollar that a black man might make overall in the economy, they make $1.23 in the public sector.

For black women, that premium is 25 percent. So, once again, for every dollar that a black woman would make overall in the economy, they make $1.25 in the public sector.

So, one, you see that's a good job because - that blacks folks have, relative to jobs that blacks have overall. In addition, you look at the question of the issue of racial wage and equality. And so we know that across the economy that whites are paid more than blacks independent of skill and other considerations. But when you look at - when you break it down by sectors, you find that sort of disparity is less than the public sector.

And so, overall, looking at things very simply, black males make 74 percent of the wage that white males make. But in the public sector, they make 80 percent. Looking at black females, overall, it's 85.4 percent in terms of the overall situation. But in the public sector, black females make 89 percent of what white women make. And so the racial disparity we're seeing in the entire economy is less in the public sector.

MARTIN: What are the - speaking of white women, as we noted, 19.8 percent of white women work for the public sector, as well. So that's a significant employer of white women, as well, almost as significant as of black women. Why do we think that is?

Prof. PITTS: Well, I think we'd be seeing across the board some sort of gender distribution of jobs there. And so he said both for black women - white women(ph) and for Latinas, as well - we see that their employment in the public sector is larger than their male counterparts.

MARTIN: But why is that? Do you think that that's because it's the type of work that the public sector typically offers, like, for example, teaching? Or is it, you had said, where African-Americans are concerned, you think that African-Americans may have migrated toward working in the public sector because there was more fairness and more opportunity. Do you think that the same is true for white women, or is that the type of employment offered? What is your sense of that?

Prof. PITTS: I think the type of employment - I think it really is two ways. You mentioned, one, in terms of the nature of the jobs in the public, and that's correct in looking at teaching and certain clerical jobs. But also, it's the alternative in the public sector - in the private sector, rather. And so you examine what might have been opportunities in the '50s and '60s, we saw a much more pronounced involvement in employment of manufacture and construction. And those sectors are typically male sectors, not female sectors.

MARTIN: And, finally, though, in the minute that we have left, Mr. Pitts, I wanted to ask you: Why do you feel that this is important data? As we've mentioned, that race has really not been mentioned very much in these discussions of sort of the rights of public workers and their collective bargaining rights and so forth.

It's mainly a matter of kind of two different visions of, A, what the government should do and, you know, fiscal austerity in this country's sort of fiscal circumstances. Why do you think that this demographic data is important?

Prof. PITTS: Well, race is rarely mentioned in public policy, unfortunately. And it seems to me that oftentimes, this country has the view that we have race-neutral policies. But the reality is that when you have a racialized society, policy that may be race-neutral have a racialized impact itself.

And so while in some ways the dominant battleground's the question of collective bargaining, union rights and political power, it's also important to note that the policies that are being talked about also have a disparate impact on the black community, as well.

MARTIN: Steven Pitts is a Labor Policy specialist at the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California Berkeley. As I mentioned, he has a doctorate in economics. He is the co-author of the report in the findings that we've just been talking about. If you want to read it for yourselves, we'll link to it on our website. Just go to npr.org, click on the Programs page, and then on TELL ME MORE.

Mr. Pitts joined us from our member station on the university's campus.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. PITTS: Thank you, and take care.

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