As the nation prepares to celebrate Labor Day, the African American community faces a two-dimensional job crisis: the crisis of unemployment and the crisis of low-wage work. These are two of the many issues being addressed by the National Black Worker Center Project, an organization that seeks to provide education about the impacts of low-wage work and unemployment within the Black community, while also working to prevent racial discrimination in hiring and other employment practices and policies.

Their recent campaign has focused on the 50-year disparity between the monthly Black unemployment rate that has averaged twice that of Whites. Their findings suggest that the lowest monthly unemployment rate for Blacks usually exceeds the highest monthly unemployment rates for Whites. Since January 1972, the lowest monthly Black unemployment rate has been 7.0%. Over that same time period—spanning 535 months—the White unemployment rate has exceeded 7.0% in only 90 months.

Unemployment is not the only crisis facing Black workers. After the Great Recession, approximately 39% of all Black workers received low-wages, a figure representing less than two-thirds of national median wage for a full-time worker. For these workers, their typical annual income was $16,288. While the Black community faces devastating unemployment numbers, many Black workers are either “under-employed” or are listed among the “working poor.”

Researchers within the Labor industry often cite certain political and economic systems in the United States that intertwine to form a political economy that produces Black poverty and racial disparities. A specific political economy has always been at the root of crises facing the Black community, according to researchers. The African slave trade and the use of Black slave labor gave birth to the United States. After the end of the Civil War, for instance, a new political economy arose in the South based on racial violence and subjugation and sharecropping. During the first half of the 20th Century, Blacks faced new forms of discrimination as we migrated to the urban industrial North.

The 21st Century is different from these previous periods, and while racial discrimination persists many experts believe that Black employment strategies and tactics must change. In the three decades immediately following World War II, as the US economy prospered, it was possible to envision a qualitative improvement in Black life if the barriers to accessing mainstream America were eliminated. Consequently, efforts were focused on eliminating legal segregation and attacking the web of institutional racism that blocked Black progress. However, the political economy has changed during the past four decades. With the move toward a global economy, the US economy no longer works for most workers regardless of race. Racial disparities still exist, but a radical improvement in the quality of Black life cannot be achieved by simply gaining better access to the labor market for individual Black workers. Today, there is a growing consensus that a new approach for Black employment is required. Specifically, three methods have been suggested to build Black worker’s collective power:

—Black worker activism must be focused upon organizing for power and not just delivering services to individuals;

—Black worker activism must be focused upon broad community uplift and not just gaining individual achievement;

—Black worker activism must be focused upon collective action and not just individual action.

“Power Conceeds Nothing Without a Demand…It Never Has…It Never Will”

  • Frederick Douglass

Black worker centers can be essential to promoting this new approach to Black worker activism and building power. Black worker centers are membership-based (and member-driven) organizations that utilize some combination of the following strategies to build power and transform working conditions for Black workers:

—Leadership development

—Policy advocacy

—Strategic communications

—Coalitional work

—Workforce development

Black workers face a so-called “racialized” political economy in which they are exploited because of their race and their class. As the Project grows and matures, each local Black Worker Center hopes to develop unique ways to reflect how Black workers are impacted by the local racialized political economy. However, certain overarching principles shall guide the work:

—The importance of Black worker centers building power through organizing in order to provide a collective voice for Black workers in the workplace and to change public policy;

—The importance of basing the Black worker centers among progressive elements of the Black community and Black union members;

—The importance of rooting the Black worker centers in the Black community’s essential networks, and;

—The importance of ensuring the activity of the Black worker centers respects the ways that gender impacts issues surrounding work in the Black community.

While self-help strategies or initiatives designed to erect alternative economic institutions have value, the racialized economic outcomes for the Black community are the result of conscious State policies and the power of employers. Consequently, an improvement in these outcomes is unlikely until these policies are changed and workers have the capacity to impact decisions in the workplace. The Project will focus on building power through organizing Black workers and other segments of the Black community and using this power to change State policies and curb employer abuses.

The relationship between the labor movement and the Black community is very complicated. However, economic justice in the workplace and hence benefits to Black workers cannot take place without strong unions. One of the strengths of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center has been its conscious efforts to unite the elements of the Black community who hold a progressive vision about jobs, and Black unionists who seek the need to expand beyond a narrow vision of unionism and embrace the community in new ways. These efforts will ground the work of all Black worker centers.

The strength of the civil rights movement lay in the engagement of key organizations and institutions that lent legitimacy to the movement because of their bases in the Black community. As the National Black Worker Center Project develops its work, a key element will be the identification of 21st Century networks and institutions that have the respect of the Black community.

Black men and Black women find themselves concentrated in different industries. In addition, gender roles and institutions such as the criminal justice system affect Black men and women differently. Consequently, the racial and economic exploitation facing Black workers is different for Black men and Black women. The Project seeks to take these realities into account as it undertakes campaigns, builds relationships in the Black community, and shapes a vision of economic justice for Black workers.