By Wade Henderson
NNPA News Wire Guest Columnist
Both of my parents worked in stable government jobs, so I had the privilege of growing up in a family that owned a home, a car, and set me on a path to college and even law school.
Among members of the African-American middle class, my story isn’t at all uncommon. If you asked any African American over the past century what the pathway to a stable career was, they’d probably say “a government job.” That’s because when people of color were subject to widespread discrimination, unionized public sector jobs such as teachers, postal workers, and administrators were often the only opportunities available.
But those jobs are under attack at the Supreme Court, and this should alarm anyone who cares about economic mobility.
The court is considering a case called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which could destroy the ability of government employees to receive the benefits that unions secure through collective bargaining like fair pay and safe workplaces.
The lead plaintiff is a lot like thousands of other teachers in California whose wages and benefits are a direct result of the California Teachers Association’s bargaining on her behalf. But Ms. Friedrichs sued because she doesn’t want to contribute to the union. If the California Teachers Association loses, the impact could be widespread, as any public sector worker anywhere in the country could decide not to pay their fair share of dues, effectively starving their union.
Ms. Friedrichs isn’t just acting on her own behalf. She is being represented by the Center for Individual Rights, the same organization that sued to gut the Voting Rights Act and to eliminate race-conscious admissions for colleges. This lawsuit is another part of a coordinated campaign to use the Supreme Court to roll back long-standing civil rights protections that people fought and died for in the streets.
Civil rights groups have filed a brief in the case because a ruling against the California Teachers Association would undermine the ability of the nurses, firefighters, postal workers, and teachers that built the Black middle class to thrive.
The reality is that women and people of color still experience pernicious barriers in employment, including unequal pay, discriminatory treatment, and unpredictable schedules. For these communities, unions have been vital to combatting discrimination and unfair treatment.
More than 30 percent of public sector union members are racial and ethnic minorities, and 55 percent are women. Wages for women union members are not only higher than their non-union counterparts, they are closer to those of male co-workers. Unsurprisingly, wages for African-American union members are also higher than their non-union counterparts. And unions improve the lot of all American workers by setting minimum workplace standards for all.
At a time of increasing inequality, the need for strong public sector jobs is especially critical. The Supreme Court should reject this rollback of collective bargaining.
Wade Henderson is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.