Wisconsin’s Attempt to Destroy A Major Cornerstone of Black Society

February 25, 2011  |  

The labor union movement has been an integral component of Black history and a necessary, contemporaneous part of everyday life for people of African descent.  Historically, when society-at-large was either hesitant or recalcitrant in giving opportunities to African-Americans for economic advancement and civil rights, it was the labor unions that provided those basic liberties.  During the times when segregation was ubiquitous throughout American society and Blacks were denied the right to vote, it was the labor unions that ensured that African-Americans workers were treated just like other workers.  Indeed, it was the deep democratic struggles of the labor movement that often provided the backdrop for at least several of the most seminal events in Black history, including the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery and the 1968 Memphis Sanitation strike.

To be sure, the labor union movement has not always been inclusionary to African-Americans.  During the formative years, many of the labor organizations were deeply racist and discriminatory and in many instances had no Black members.  In response to this explicit disparity, African-Americans such as Isaac Myers and A. Philip Randolph fought hard and formed their own labor unions (i.e., The Colored National Labor Union in 1869 and The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925) until more integration occurred in the 1930s.  Through the efforts of W.E.B. Dubois, Myers and Randolph, many rank and file members of national unions began to look beyond their prejudices.  In the face of unsatisfactory compensation, maltreatment, arbitrary dismissals and deplorable working conditions, the establishment and actions of these organizations soon became essential for civil rights amongst the working poor and the African-American community, in general, for years to come.

Fast forward to 2011, we find that the plight of these historically significant and modern-day organizations have come under fire,- specifically in the state of Wisconsin.   Recently, Wisconsin’s Republican governor Scott Walker proposed legislation to reduce public employee union bargaining power and benefits under the guise of repairing the state’s budget during tough times.  Certain commentators have expressed that Governor Walker is doing the right thing via this legislative proposition.  Like Governor Walker, these proponents believe that state workers and public employee unions are the primary reasons for their budget woes because of exorbitant pay, “Cadillac” health insurance and pensions, and collective bargaining.  Additionally, supporters of Governor Walker believe that somehow public employee unions are no longer needed, as America has more professional jobs and no longer has dangerous working conditions due to the existence of OSHA and EPA regulations or unfair, unjust and discriminatory practices due to the presence of labor laws.  Really?

As some may think that Governor Walker’s actions are noble in nature, the facts bear witness to a darker truth.   According to the nonpartisan Pew Center for the States, documented evidence indicates that Wisconsin’s pension fund for public employees is “very strong and is not in fiscal trouble,” which is opposite of Governor Walker’s ominous picture.   The Pew report also notes that the pension is primarily managed by “Wall Street professionals who were paid $194.7 millions to manage the fund’s assets.”  Moreover, objective nonpartisan legal review by Wisconsin transportation officials has indicated that the passage of the anti-union legislation would likely result in the forfeiture of millions of dollars in funds for transportation under federal labor law provisions, which would put the state in an extremely difficult fiscal situation when compared to the purported pension fund.

So, with the unbiased facts being noted, what is the real impetus behind Governor Walker’s proposed legislation?  It is his moment to bust public employee unions in his state and to establish a precedent for similar actions in other states.  It is his time to threaten over 10,000 honest and hard-working teachers, state workers and other public employees with layoffs, although objective and factual evidence indicates that Wisconsin’s deficit of roughly $140 million can be largely attributed to Governor Walker’s fiscal mismanagement and three of his specific initiatives:

  • $48 million for private health savings accounts;
  • $67 million for a tax incentive plan to benefit employers; and,
  • $25 millions for an economic development fund.

Without equivocation, labor unions are still needed in this country.  These organizations are a necessary fabric of the American workforce and a major cornerstone of Black society.  Dr. King, Dubois, Myers, Randolph and many other African-American who fought for our present-day liberties and sacrificed their lives knew the importance of sustaining labor unions.   Governor Walker’s deeply-rooted partisan motives threaten to turn back the clock on a plethora of deep democratic victories.  It’s very interesting how history can repeat itself.

Anthony Jerrod is a bestselling author, speaker, and public policy expert.

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