Right to Work Zones and Unions in the Black Community

by

Maze Jackson

 

Governor Bruce Rauner has proposed introducing employee empowerment zones in Illinois and it has not been received with open arms by unions or legislators around the state. While the Governor initially proposed changing Illinois, known as a union stronghold, into a right to work state, he has settled on empowerment zones.

Governor Rauner says, “Employee empowerment zones will allow Illinois to better compete with employment-flexible states, like Indiana. The Turnaround Agenda empowers local voters and communities to decide if they should be open or closed shop, and these zones will help attract businesses, which will create jobs, particularly in areas with high unemployment.”

It would also exploit historic tensions between the trade unions and the Black community, which has long-held that the unions are barriers to Black employment in Black communities.

Trade unions, formed after slavery were initially created for workers rights, but also to prevent skilled slaves from taking jobs from White workers.   Over time, as Blacks migrated North and White businessmen sought to break strikes, they often employed Black “scabs” who were willing to accept the verbal and often physical abuse of White union members and expendable to the White business owners.

Concurrently, Black leaders like A. Phillip Randolph eventually began organizing groups like the Pullman Porters who advocated specifically for Black workers. Eventually, Black unions were integrated into larger White unions with their presence being relegated to Black “caucuses.”

The trade unions, which traditionally have the highest paid remain primarily dominated by White ethnic men in membership and leadership, and receive complaints from legislators and community activists alike for their lack of diversity. Conversely, low wage Black and minority workers dominate the service unions, with “liberal” White leadership making most policy decisions. Both groups say that right to work laws are bad for working middle class families, pointing to a Public Policy Polling report that states, “55% of voters are resistant to right to work laws.”

But with a Black unemployment rate of almost 25% in Chicago, and projected to be almost 14% statewide, the question becomes what is the benefit of employee empowerment zones for Black community? Black community activists and Black legislators alike agree that while unions provide great jobs and wages, they are the barrier to Blacks accessing those great jobs and wages. “Right to work zones are needed to allow the people who have been left out to participate in rebuilding their own communities. Then, once the community is rebuilt they want us to leave,” stated community activist and organizer of Voice Of The Ex-offender (VOTE).

The unions counter with the fact that while there are opportunities for growth, Black people are not applying to become part of the trade unions. In response, they have increased their outreach efforts. “One of the biggest challenges we find it that most people do not know the process of how to find the job. Once a person gets in the program, they can be as successful as they want to be, “ said IBEW Local 134 official Mario Miller.

State Representative Ken Dunkin, counters, “We have to hold these unions accountable. They’ve got to explain to our community why they should not have the right to work. “

Right to work zones will most likely be voted on this week, will fail miserably, and the unions will be able to claim a big victory against the Governor. What remains to be seen is how this vote plays out in the upcoming Statehouse elections. If the Black unemployment rates remain disproportionately high and social services continue to get cut, many of the same Black legislators who will vote against the right to work zone legislation will have to explain to their constituencies why they voted for unions and against their right to work.   That will be difficult to sell to unemployed Blacks.

Cook County Goes Back to the Future

by

Maze Jackson

 

As Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle prepares to raise the Cook County sales tax by one penny, she should consider that it was that same penny that got her predecessor “lynched in the media.”

On December 4, 2006, Todd Stroger was sworn in as Cook County Board President. He replaced the interim Board President Bobbie Steele, who had only been in office since August 4th of that same year, completing the term of Stroger’s father. John Stroger had been County Board President until he was incapacitated with a stroke.

New County Board County Board President Stroger only had three months to craft an $3.1 billion budget that had a $500 million deficit . “The apparatus was in place to put a budget together, but no one took responsibility during the interim presidency,” Stroger said during an interview.

Stroger consulted his advisers, who all agreed that county government needed to be reformed. Stroger mandated across-the-board cuts of 21% for all 28 departments under his control. He requested the same from the other county officers, who all generally complied, with the exception of the Sheriff’s and State’s Attorney’s Offices.

Was former Cook Count Board President Todd Stroger right all along? Will it lead to a political comeback? (photo courtesy of ABC7 Chicago)

When Stroger directed the hospital system to make “$90 million” in cuts, they recommended closing Provident and Oak Forest Hospitals.   “Oak Forest was in the South Suburbs, and our flagship hospital, the County Hospital is 45 minutes away from Robbins. Our (Black) people needed that hospital, especially with so many Blacks moving to the South Suburbs,” Stroger stated.

“And when you look at Provident, that hospital was the biggest economic engine in that community, plus Michael Reese (hospital) was going to close. It was just too important to close, so we went back to every department and scraped together every bit of money we could, and we kept those hospitals open and balanced the budget in our first year.”

In Stroger’s 2nd year, Cook County found itself $238 million in the hole again because “the union agreement increased every year. We had to solve the problem.” So Stroger along with Ralph Martire and the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability came up with a plan that “paid the bills without taking it out on the employees or over burdening the taxpayers, but we knew we needed revenue.”

In 2007, after trimming as much waste as possible, making almost every reform suggested by advisers and critics alike, and even voluntarily signing on to the Shakman decree, President Todd Stroger passed a balanced budget that included a one penny sales tax increase.

“Not only was the budget balanced, it addressed the structural deficit created by the labor agreements that continue to increase every year, “ Stroger said. “When President Preckwinkle came in she basically replicated my plan, but when she cut the sales tax, she found herself back at square one.”

As Preckwinkle seeks to pass the same one-penny sales tax that many say was the deathblow to the Stroger Presidency, she is finding unlikely opposition.

“The sales tax may be the easiest for the County Board to pass, but it will be hardest on the working families when everyday purchases  – diapers, toothpaste, kid’s clothes – get more expensive. And it will be hardest on businesses who risk losing customers to Indiana or Will County. Cook County needs revenue to provide quality health services and a just criminal justice system, but a tax that hits the hardest on the hardest hit is not the way to go,” County Commissioner Bridgette Gainer (D-10) emphasized.

Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer opposes the “Toni Tax”

The “Toni Tax” as it is being called will likely pass, but no politician ever wants their name directly associated with a tax. Just ask Stroger.

“The newspaper and media made my name and tax synonymous. Say tax and people said Stroger. Water, property…any tax was The Stroger Tax, and I only asked for one penny,” Stroger finished. “At least I kept the hospitals open for that penny.”

Should Black Have the Right to Work in Our Own Communities?

Earlier this month, the Illinois General Assembly voted overwhelmingly against a bill that would have created right to work zones in Illinois. As a matter of fact the bill did not get one yes vote. With Black unemployment in Illinois at almost 24 percent one would assume that the bill would have received at least a few yes votes, but nope, not one, zero…zilch. It seems simple; everyone should have the right to work in his or her own communities’ right? Well it’s not that simple. Let me explain.

Illinois is a strong union state, and they play political hardball. They are also at the center of Illinois’ pension crisis, and Governor Bruce Rauner has declared them his personal public enemy number one. Meanwhile, the trade unions have a long history of excluding Blacks from their membership ranks while the service unions have a similar history within the ranks of their leadership.   Black activists often point to almost all White work sites in Black communities as evidence that unions do not operate in the best interests of Black folks.

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Governor Rauner hopes to use that fact to exploit the tensions that already exist between the unions, Black legislators, and the Black community. The unions counter that they provide worker benefits and good paying jobs, and that right to work will drive wages down.

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So here we are, once again with White people fighting to tell us what’s best for us, without talking to us. The white unions tell us that if we support right to work, our wages will go down and our benefits will decrease. The Governor says supporting right to work will allow Black folk to work in their own communities.   But here’s my question… if its truly OUR community, how come the White folks are making us choose either or? We want the right to work and a good salary. They don’t expect White folks to make that choice, so we aren’t either. If we don’t work, there is no work. Union or not!