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Horace Sheffield

Horace Sheffield

Collective bargaining benefits the Black middle class

By Rev. Horace Sheffield III

With the news last week that the national unemployment rate declined below 8 percent for the first time since President Obama took office, the nation appears to be slowly but surely turning the corner on the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Everyone should take heart in this development. Still, the Great Recession had a devastating impact on the Black middle class, which is still trying to recover. For example, Backs overall are still experiencing a 13.4 percent unemployment rate, much higher than the national rate of 7.8 percent.

That is why it is critical we vote “yes” on Proposal 2 to protect collective bargaining on Nov. 6. Proposal 2 will provide a constitutional guarantee to this most basic right of working families to negotiate for fair wages, benefits and safer working conditions that are good for us all.

The National Urban League’s 2012 State of Black America report found that nearly all the economic gains that the Black middle class made during the last 30 years have been wiped out by the economic downturn. And a July 2012 report by The Pew Charitable Trusts Economic Mobility Project found that the average Black household’s wealth fell by more than half, to $5,677, while white household wealth fell 16 percent to $113,149, during the recession.

Still, most of us don’t need reports from think tanks to know our communities have been hit the hardest by the recession. We can see all around us how a disproportionate number of those Black wage earners knocked out of the middle class were people who worked for many years in the public sector. They were our teachers, postal workers, state employees, police officers, firefighters and other emergency responders whose jobs were eliminated due to state and municipal belt tightening and more specifically, the undermining of collective bargaining agreements that in more normal times were routinely honored and offered job security.

But these are not normal times. Corporate bosses seem to have a near stranglehold on Lansing politicians and have been working with them to strip away the basic rights of Michigan’s working families to collectively bargain. They know collective bargaining protects employees. This has been especially true when it comes to the inclusion and promotion of racial minorities in the workplace.

In fact, collective bargaining helped increase the pay of African Americans working at the poorest-paying jobs by 15 percent, according to a 2008 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. On average, it raised hourly pay 12 percent for African Americans, the study found. Raising pay for African Americans working at low-paying jobs is important because African Americans comprise 56.5 percent of such workers in large cities like Detroit.

Don’t be fooled by the slick and scary ads attacking Proposal 2. That old saying among Black folks about being the “last hired, first fired” is absolutely true. Collective bargaining is often the only mechanism for ensuring a fair and equal evaluation process critical to job retention. Without it, even more minorities — as well as our friends, family and neighbors — would be pink slipped at the first sign of a downturn.

Sheffield is the president of the Detroit Association of Black Organizations.

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