The Civil Rights Issue of Our Time?

The corporate reformers like to say that “school choice” is the civil rights issue of our time. This is a view shared by Jeb Bush, the Walton family, Scott Walker, and various other rightwingers whose real goal is to shrink the public sector by privatization and to eliminate unions.

But a recent story in the New York Times said that the loss of public sector jobs hurts African American workers disproportionately.

“Roughly one in five black adults works for the government, teaching school, delivering mail, driving buses, processing criminal justice and managing large staffs. They are about 30 percent more likely to have a public sector job than non-Hispanic whites, and twice as likely as Hispanics.

“Compared to the private sector, the public sector has offered black and female workers better pay, job stability and more professional and managerial opportunities,” said Jennifer Laird, a sociologist at the University of Washington who has been researching the subject.

“During the Great Recession, though, as tax revenues plunged, federal, state and local governments began shedding jobs. Even now, with the economy regaining strength, public sector employment has still not bounced back. An incomplete recovery is part of the reason, but a combination of strong anti-government and anti-tax sentiment in some places has kept down public payrolls. At the same time, attempts to curb collective bargaining, like those led by Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, a likely Republican presidential candidate, have weakened public unions.

“The Labor Department counts half a million fewer public sector jobs than before the start of the recession in 2007. That figure, however, understates just how much the government’s work force has shrunk, said Elise Gould, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-oriented research organization in Washington. That is because it fails to account for the normal growth in the country’s population: Factor that in, she said, and there are 1.8 million fewer jobs in the public sector for people to fill.

“The decline reverses a historical pattern, researchers say, with public sector employees typically holding onto their jobs even during most economic downturns.

“Because blacks hold a disproportionate share of the jobs, relative to their share of the population, the cutbacks naturally hit them harder.”

The decline in unions has also harmed black and Hispanic families, because union jobs provide a path to the middle class with better wages and a measure of job security.

Anyone who claims that privatization promotes civil rights is purposely distorting the facts. Getting a voucher or a charter (to a school thay may be worse than the public school) does not compensate for the loss of your parents’ employment. It is a devil’s bargain.

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