The improved jobs figures out last Friday obscured the ongoing decline in public-sector jobs. As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics noted when releasing the March unemployment data:
Employment in local government continued to trend down over the month. Local government has lost 416,000 jobs since an employment peak in September 2008.
The loss of such jobs is important because the nation’s well-being depends not only on job numbers increasing, but on the creation of quality jobs—those that pay decent wages and enable people to attain or maintain a middle-class life. According to National Employment Law Project (NELP), the new jobs being created aren’t as good as the ones that have been lost. NELP found that jobs in lower wage industries, such as retail and food preparation, made up 23 percent of the jobs that were lost in the recent recession. Yet they made up 49 percent of the jobs the economy has gained in the past year. As the BBC Business puts it:
In other words, it appears that while people may finally be returning to work, they have to work for less pay.
In contrast, jobs in the public sector have provided such economic stability. They have also made it possible for some of the nation’s most economically marginalized—women and minorities—to achieve financial security often denied them in the private sector.
So attacks on public employees hit women and black workers especially hard.
Susan Feiner, professor of economics and of women’s and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine, writes that:
employees at the federal (43 percent female), state (53 percent female) and local (61 percent female) levels have been able to better resist the wage reductions, benefit cuts and mass lay-offs that giant multinational corporations have visited upon employees over the last decade.
Yet Feiner finds that “while women represented 57 percent of the public-sector work force at the end of the recession,”
women lost the vast majority—79 percent—of the 327,000 jobs cut in this sector between July 2009 and February 2011, according to a January report by the Washington, D.C.-based National Women’s Law Center.
Steven Pitts, labor policy specialist at the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center, writes today about the striking results of his new research brief, Blacks and the Public Sector. In sum:
- The public sector is the single most important source of employment for African Americans.
- During 2008-2010, 21.2 percent of all black workers were public employees, compared with 16.3 percent of non-black workers. Both before and after the onset of the Great Recession, African Americans were 30 percent more likely than other workers to be employed in the public sector.
- The public sector is also a critical source of decent-paying jobs for black worker. For both men and women, the median wage earned by black employees is significantly higher in the public sector than in other industries.
- Prior to the recession, the wage differential between black and white workers was less in the public sector than in the overall economy.
As California Progress Report writes:
For blacks and others, “the best anti-poverty program is union organizing,” the UC Berkeley Labor Center notes on its website.”
And so moves by Republican governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio to shred the ability of public employees to bargain for a decent middle-class life are also specifically targeting the ability of women and black workers to remain in the economic mainstream.
About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee (she was represented by a hotel and restaurant local union—the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism—covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia—she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.
This blog originally was post on AFL-CIO on April 5, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.