Attacks on workers in Wisconsin are attacks on Black workers everywhere

Dr. L. Toni Lewis, SEIU Healthcare Chair

In Wisconsin, nearly one in four African American workers is unemployed; Black unemployment (24 percent) is more than three times the rate of Whites (7 percent), far exceeding the national Black unemployment rate; and, one in three of Wisconsin’s Black workers is underemployed— all according to a report, “The State of Working Wisconsin,” by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS).

Similar stats are reflected in states across the country. Last year the unemployment rate for blacks is expected to reach 27 percent in Michigan while jobless rates in other states are above 20 percent for Blacks are Alabama, Illinois, Ohio and South Carolina.

Yet, Republican governors like Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker continue attacking the workers who plow our roads, teach our children, keep our families healthy, and care for our veterans and seniors.

We cannot turn a blind eye to what’s happening to workers in Wisconsin or any state—especially those with sizeable African American communities facing the most calamitous impacts of the nation’s failing economy. African Americans in Wisconsin make up 40 percent of the state’s population with many residing in Milwaukee, the 26th largest city in the country.

Governor Walker’s cuts aren’t just about Wisconsin. These legislative attempts to limit workers’ rights are a coordinated effort by the GOP and corporate CEOs trying to push cuts in our wages, abolish our benefits and outsource our jobs.

Public officials in several other states like Ohio, New Jersey, and Michigan are also set to consider eliminating collective bargaining (a worker’s ability to negotiate for wage increases, healthcare, job security, retirement plans, etc…) or drastically change employee pension and access to affordable health insurance.

In many states, public officials aren’t willing to negotiate with the unions that help protect the workers who keep states running—social and economic protections that help communities of color the most.

Anti-union initiatives like threats to collective bargaining in the workplace and “Right to Work” (for less pay and without protections) legislation make things very difficult for Black workers who are already less likely than whites to have employer-provided health insurance and pension plans. And, according to the Department of Labor, only 44 percent of African American male workers have any pension coverage at all.

But, unionized African American workers make 30 percent more, are 16 percent more likely to have employer-provided health coverage, and are 19 percent more likely to have pensions, according U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Instead of allowing politicians to attack the voices of all working families in our communities, we should be doing more to protect and defend America’s shrinking middle class. The African American community has a long and resilient history of doing just that—standing up for fair and equal treatment and confronting those who exploit basic human rights.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood the connection between strengthening unions and uplifting workers to achieve long-term economic justice for African Americans. He continuously showed his support for the labor movement when he addressed hospital workers at 1199SEIU in New York and marched with striking sanitation workers trying to form a union in Memphis just before he was killed.

Thousands of courageous workers—union and nonunion, from all different racial backgrounds—are joining together to defend the American labor movement and the middle class that movement aims to protect.

We all need to be a part of the movement to fight for workplace equality and fairness, affordable healthcare, and the right to bargain contracts. We need our elected leaders to work together to create jobs and strengthen our economy, not wage partisan attacks on middle class families to score political points with big donors.

Help us stop politicians and state legislatures from trying to balance their budgets on the backs of hardworking people. Politicians like Governor Walker should be creating jobs – not attacking nurses, teachers and firefighters who continuously make painful sacrifices.

With 2.2 million members in Canada, the United States and Puerto Rico, SEIU is the fastest-growing union in the Americas. Focused on uniting workers in healthcare, public services and property services, SEIU members are winning better wages, healthcare and more secure jobs for our communities, while uniting their strength with their counterparts around the world to help ensure that workers–not just corporations and CEOs- -benefit from today’s global economy.