Race and Class: Downturn Undermines Black “Middle Class”

Against the Current, No. 139, March/April 2009

Malik Miah

ALTHOUGH THE HISTORIC election of president Barack Obama has led to big cheers in the Black community and society in general, the reality for the vast majority of African Americans is growing uncertainty if not joblessness and poverty. Cities like Detroit, and the Rust Belt in the Midwest, are reeling under the blows of the recession and structural changes, including overseas outsourcing and shifting work to nonunion companies in “right to work” states.

The adage that when the country gets a cold, the Black community catches pneumonia is playing out across the country. While official unemployment hit 7.2%. in December, it’s over 50% higher for African Americans at 11.9%. But those numbers understate the reality.

Fall of the “Middle Class”

The Black “middle class” historically has been formed because of the relatively higher-paying jobs and benefits of union-organized manufacturing. Black professionals as a group grew after the victory of the civil rights movement in 1960s; this sector is now at the largest size (percentage and absolute) that it’s ever been in U.S. history.

These middle-class layers, however, are for the most part first generation sons and daughters of Black auto, steel, government and other unionized families. The recession is causing major layoffs in these jobs and fewer working-class youth are now able to attend four-year colleges.

Trade unions, including the government sector, represent fewer and fewer workers (12.4%). Private sector unionism is even weaker. The jobs that exist have fewer benefits, and declining wage levels. The standard of living is eroding.

The new confidence seen in the Black community after the Obama election does not minimize the issue of racism. Yet the issue of racism on the job, especially a union job, is not the number one concern of African-American workers today. And when layoffs occur, Blacks in union jobs know that the seniority system is their best protection.

Favoritism in nonunion jobs where management is still mostly white is another situation. Federal and state laws, however, do provide more job security than ever before.

At the same time, union seniority doesn’t mean much when an entire industry is facing major restructuring and shutdowns. Black workers are being hit disproportionally in industries in decline — auto, steel and other manufacturers. In auto manufacturing (assembly and parts), African Americans made up 14.2% of the total automotive work force in 2007, as compared to 11.2% of the overall U.S. workforce.

The round of auto layoffs in late 2008 hit Black workers the hardest. In November nearly 20,000 African-American auto workers had lost their jobs — a 13.9% decline. The African-American community, with a smaller percentage of college-educated citizens, remains more dependent on getting higher-paying manufacturing jobs to enter the “middle class.” According to the Economic Policy Institute, 21.9% of Black workers as compared with 33.7% of whites have college degrees.

Due to the legacy of institutional racism, Black wealth (low home ownership due to loan discrimination polices and redlining, few retirement and other sources of income) is negligible compared to white families who did not suffer legal segregation.

The decline in manufacturing jobs has been replicated in other industries, especially where high school education or two-year college/trade school degrees are more prevalent. The significance of these job losses is great. The traditional manufacturing industries are heavily unionized with decent wages and benefits.

The so-called middle class (heavily based in reality on the unionized working class) of the Black community is withering away. The rich and poor divide has widened over the last eight years under the neoconservative Bush-Cheney government.

The educated middle-class layers have been driven back too, since there is a modest legacy group holding white-collar jobs. For example, auto dealerships owned by African Americans have been disproportionately closed. Most were first-generation dealerships.

Industrial-based unions like the United Auto Workers (UAW) and United Steel Workers Union (USWA) took blows from earlier restructuring due to globalization and now the deepening world recession. The unions’ staffs are suffering layoffs as they adjust to declining memberships.

Unions in Steady Retreat

U.S. unions have been in retreat since the early 1980s when President Reagan fired and broke the air traffic controllers’ union. While there is hope that a more friendly government with Democrat Barack Obama and his pro-union Labor Secretary will bring labor relief, it is not likely without organized resistance.

Organized labor must push back and demand fundamental changes that benefit all working people. A strategy of simply hanging on or waiting for friendly politicians cannot work. New models, including a break with the political status quo, are required. So far few if any in labor have that outlook.

The well-publicized Republic Windows and Doors factory sit-in in Chicago late last year was significant — but limited. Heroic as it was, the stated goal was to get full severance and back pay and benefits denied after the owners filed for bankruptcy protection. It was not realistic to demand a government take over to keep the plant open.

Without a rise of a new militant union movement or rank-and-file unemployed workers’ movement as occurred in the 1930s, labor will continue to shrink in size. Because African Americans are the most pro-union section of the working class and gain the most with strong unions, the decline of the labor movement could undermine the gains of the civil rights era.

A militant civil rights movement had a dual role. It strengthened labor as the growth of unions aided the rise of militant Black rights campaigners. The main foot soldiers of the civil rights organizations have always been Black workers, especially those in unions.

In previous struggles Black workers played a major role in building progressive unions to fight discrimination and support civil rights. Blacks also pushed back against union leaderships that didn’t understand the link between the two issues and helped reshape those unions that followed a narrower business union philosophy.

These are important lessons as the deepening recession unfolds and issues of working-class unity, racism and what to do are posed more sharply today.

A case in point is what happened at the airlines; it indicates what could happen again in the future. The context was the 1974-75 world recession, which came as Blacks pressed for full equality.

Consent Decree

The most powerful example occurred at United Airlines where I work today. Several African Americans in the early 1970s filed a lawsuit. The case was against both the company and unions for refusing to take steps to end institutional racism that denied qualified Blacks from gaining advanced positions.

The court ruled in favor of these workers and imposed a Consent Decree — an order requiring full integration in skilled jobs where Blacks and women had been excluded or faced discrimination. The decree imposed fixed hiring goals on the company for supervisory positions, and on the unions for higher-skilled positions. It led to the first Black and female pilots.

The union contract had to be permanently changed to modify the seniority system — something labor officials strongly opposed. The officials argued that only contract negotiations could alter the collective bargaining agreement.

While in general I would agree with this stance as someone who has participated in contract negotiations, the issue of race and racism required an outside body to force management and union officials to fundamentally change social relations on the job. The civil rights laws likewise forced state and federal governments to end legal segregation and employers to change hiring and promotion practices after the 1960s.

Historically unions used the “contract seniority” argument as a way to accept the status quo of race discrimination, which is why most unions prior to the 1960s had Jim Crow locals in the South.

The Consent Decree modification at United Airlines was an important radical and positive change. It led the other airlines to open the doors to minorities to better jobs without a court order. It forced the airline unions to begin to change their attitudes and leadership composition.

In the case of the workers represented by the International Association of Machinists (IAM) union, including baggage handlers, storekeepers and most importantly mechanics, it meant that company seniority would protect workers in higher-skilled jobs from layoffs once they bid and qualified for those positions. It changed the dynamic of keeping high-seniority Blacks in lower classifications from taking mechanic jobs for fear of a layoff because of classification seniority.

This was a significant change because many qualified Black mechanics (many of whom had learned their trade in the military, like many whites) were not hired in the 1950s and ‘60s as mechanics. They had to take lower classification jobs (if hired) such as ramp and storekeeper positions.

When the civil rights victory led to cracks in the companies’ hiring policies, increasing the number of Black mechanics who had lost years of mechanic seniority due to years of job discrimination, the Consent Decree gave them full seniority for layoff purposes.

Significantly, this contract modification occurred outside normal negotiations. It has helped as many if not more employees from other ethnic groups as it has benefited Blacks. Every worker gained from that anti-discrimination lawsuit. As generally is the case, when a historically discriminated group wins a gain, it benefits workers.

Of course there is still racism and prejudice prevalent at United Airlines and other unionized carriers. But the racism is not what it was. The blatant discrimination of the pre-Consent Decree era is rare. Moreover, the companies, because of the laws, are more forceful in responding to acts of discrimination. There are conflicts. But they are just as likely between Black and Latinos, whites and Asians, and so on.

Obama Election’s Broader Meaning

Even against this difficult background, the election of Barack Obama reflects the societal change — and cannot be minimized. The rise of social consciousness is not just true for African Americans. Whites, Latinos, Asians and all ethnic groups see racism and prejudice differently. The concept of who is an “American” has been broadened especially among whites.

How does this affect future struggles? It means that the fight for civil rights and labor rights will be more intertwined and at a level of sophistication not seen in the past. The goal will be less on the courts issuing consent decrees and Congress overruling “states’ rights.” It is a positive development, and clears the way for a sharper debate on issues affecting labor and capital.

At the same time, while African Americans are more confident because Obama has been elected president, the fight against institutional racism means that civil rights groups still have an important role to play in pressing the employers and government.

While the issue of racism is at best only one factor in the minds of rank-and-file workers, including African Americans who are seeking change and more effective leaderships to defend their interests and take on the employer, vigilance on the issue is crucial or gains can be pushed back.

Yet it is clear to me that the working class of all races will push forward in a way not seen in decades, now that the race card does not have the power it once had to divide and conquer. The racist extremists are still alive (see the blogs) but Obama’s broad multi-ethnic support showed how much their power is slipping.

ATC 139, March-April 2009