Public Sector Unions Mean Middle-Class Jobs for Black Workers

Government jobs have been an important source of economic mobility for Black workers and their families for many years. The federal government was an early adopter of anti-discrimination provisions, and today about a fifth of federal workers are Black. This includes those employed by the United States Postal Service, which provided well-paying jobs and career pathways to formerly enslaved people well before the rest of government, and in 2020 employed just under a fifth of Black federal workers. State and local governments have similarly emerged as wellsprings of relatively stable and well-paying employment for Black workers and pensions for Black retirees. The public sector’s legacy as a path to the middle class for the Black community persists today; government workers are disproportionately Black, and the pay gap between Black workers and white workers is smaller in the public sector than in the private sector.

The public sector is also an important source of union jobs for Black workers. Our analysis of 2020 data from the Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group indicates that the unionization rate for Black workers in the public sector is quadruple the unionization rate for Black workers in the private sector, and unionized public sector workers account for a larger share of the Black workforce than they do of the white workforce. This matters because research has shown that Black workers who are members of a union or covered by a union contract enjoy considerable earnings and benefit advantages compared to their nonunion counterparts.

As with white workers, Black workers in the public sector are more likely to be unionized than their counterparts in the private sector, but the difference in unionization rates is actually smaller for Blacks than whites. In fact, the public sector unionization rate for Black workers has lagged the public sector unionization rate for white workers for almost two decades; the situation is reversed in the private sector. The overrepresentation of both white and Black workers in public sector employment comes primarily at the expense of Hispanics and Asians, who are underrepresented. White workers make up a larger share of unionized public sector workers than they do of the public sector workforce as a whole; the opposite is true for Black workers.

Compared to their share of overall workforce, Black workers have been overrepresented at all levels of government — federal, state, and local — since such data first became available in 1989. Black workers, relative to their share of the workforce as a whole, have also traditionally been overrepresented among union members at all levels of government. Since 2016, however, Black workers have been underrepresented among union members in local government, despite being overrepresented in the local government workforce.

The year the pandemic began was a bullish year for unions, particularly in the public sector and among Black workers. For Black workers in the public sector, union density and the number of unionized workers both increased. However, the gap between the Black share of the local government workforce and the Black share of the unionized local government workforce is concerning. Union members appeared to weather 2020’s pandemic pandemonium better than their nonunion counterparts; the percent decline in the number of employed was far more pronounced among nonunion workers. Overdue aid to state and local governments is poised to finally be included in the latest COVID-19 relief bill, but state and local governments have already shed millions of jobs. Should these cuts continue, one can surmise that many of those lost jobs will belong to Black workers, who have otherwise borne an excessive share of the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic burden.

The exacerbation of existing inequalities during the pandemic has been accompanied by a resurgence of interest in furthering racial equity. As Black History Month draws to a close in 2021, it is worth reflecting on the critical role public sector union jobs have played in creating a pathway to the middle class for Black workers and their families.

This column first appeared on CERP.