Making Work Pay for
Black Working Women
Why the economic well-being of black working women must be the litmus test for economic justice
Black women stand at the center of all that is not working for workers in our current economy. While many of the obstacles that stymie black women’s economic advancement are not unique to other women or different groups of workers, the convergence of gender- and race-based inequities compound in ways that leave black women at or near the bottom of nearly every economic indicator. Further, as black women are three times more likely than white women to be single heads of household, their economic insecurity has a direct effect on the economic stability of black children.
Research by National Research Director Linda Burnham of the National Domestic Workers Alliance confirms this reality. In her May 2015 paper, Gender and the Black Jobs Crisis, Burnham writes that black working women’s economic realities are shaped by a double jeopardy resulting from both women and African Americans being overrepresented in low-wage economic sectors and jobs such as health support, fast food and retail sales. Using 2013 data from the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Burnham reports that black women are concentrated in some low-wage jobs at double or triple the rate of their share of the employed. For example, 61.9 percent of all food preparation and serving workers, which includes fast-food workers, are women who earn a mean annual wage of $18,000. Despite making up about 13.1 percent of the total number employed, black women represent 20.5 percent of this workforce. Among nursing, psychiatric and home health aides—occupations where women are 88.5 percent of the total number employed—black women represent 35.9 percent of this workforce, which earns a mean annual wage of $24,700.
While low wages top the list of woes for many black working women, they are at the peak of a very high mountain. In addition to struggling to make ends meet, black working women experience high rates of wage theft; race- and gender-based income inequality; exposure to sexual harassment; unfair work scheduling practices; and limited access to paid leave to care for their sick children, family members or themselves. A 2009 study by the National Employment Law Project, the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and the Center for Urban Economic Development found that African Americans experience wage theft at more than twice the rate (19.1 percent) of white workers (7.8 percent). In addition, while female workers in general earn less than white males, the gap is much greater for black women. For African American female restaurant servers, for example, this means that while the average female server loses more than $320,000 in wages over a lifetime, black female servers lose more than $400,000.
And Still I Rise participants profiled in this section of the report confirm the accuracy of these statistics. And yet as union members, leaders and labor activists, their stories also speak to the hope and promise of labor organizing as a critical part of the solution.
Without a doubt, black women who belong to unions and are covered by collective bargaining agreements fare better than their non-union counterparts. The benefits of unions continue to hold true for women in low-wage jobs. Black union workers in low-wage jobs earn a median hourly wage of $15.58, compared to $12.05 for their non-union counterparts. Additionally, 54.6 percent of black union workers in low-wage jobs have health insurance, compared to 32.6 percent of their non-union counterparts.
The union advantage confirms the importance of organizing more black women into unions and workers’ rights organizations as an important strategy for black women’s economic advancement—and also for the advancement of economic justice beyond unions. Just as high union density in past decades has raised standards for workers who did not belong to unions, the opposite has proven true. According to a 2012 report by the Economic Policy Institute, declining union density and the weakened power of workers to bargain for higher wages in recent years have contributed to a widening wealth gap between the haves and the have-nots and a widening gap between increased productivity and the average worker’s wage.
Consequently, organizing more workers—especially black working women—into unions is not just a labor issue, it is an economic justice issue with profound implications for advancing progressive economic policies. As a result, protecting black women’s right to organize should continue to hold a place at the center of the economic justice agenda of other segments of the progressive community.
On the following pages, And Still I Rise participants share their thoughts on the economic policy issues that the labor movement should take up. But other segments of the progressive community should also take note. When asked an open-ended question about the economic issues of concern for black women and the black community that the labor movement should support more rigorously, three themes emerged:
First, black working women want living wages, equal pay and other policies that enable them to be good workers and great mothers. Black union and labor-affiliated women mentioned the need for living wages, equal pay, and an end to income inequality more often than any other economic issues. Often the need for higher wages was placed in the context of black women as heads of the household. The need for childcare was also mentioned with a high degree of frequency. Said one respondent, “Black women usually are the bread winner and the only parent in their homes. I think there needs to be more focus on childcare.” Another respondent paired these issues, listing the priorities as “wages, childcare and wage equity.” Other issues often mentioned as concerns for working mothers included paid leave to care for sick children, family and themselves; and the need for fairness in scheduling work hours.
Second, upward mobility issues are of high concern to both black women in unions and labor-affiliated organizations. Among national survey respondents, a quarter of union members and a third of labor-affiliated women identified training and education that fosters career advancement as important. Women spoke to this issue as a need for “more training and workshops to get ahead” and “training more black women to get those higher positions.”
Third, for black working women social justice issues are economic justice issues. And Still I Rise participants draw deep, inextricable connections between the economic condition of black women and the social and political condition of black communities. Reflective of
the times, criminalization, mass incarceration, and police brutality are issues of paramount concern. Wrote one respondent, “The murder of our sons, the demonization of black men (brothers, husbands, and sons). Labor could support more legislation around these issues.” There was also a strong desire to see the labor movement take up race more explicitly as a part of its economic analysis. One survey respondent called for “a more explicit focus on race and gender as a part of wealth inequality.” Still others called for connections to the black community and other social movements. Wrote one respondent, “We need to adopt a broader agenda that includes issues of civil rights and our communities.”
The narratives of the women on the following pages give a face and voice to the aforementioned statistics and references. But most important, they give hope of a way forward. From Connie Ogletree, we learn of the plight and promise of organizing low-wage workers. Rachel Bryan embodies what is possible when the doors of opportunity to high-paying professions are opened for women and the formerly incarcerated. And Alicia Garza and Rosalyn Pelles draw clear lines of sight between the labor movement and current social justice movements with an explicit race analysis.
Their stories, and those of the thousands of black working women within and without unions, call for the economic status of black working women and their families to become the litmus test by which we judge the efficacy of our economic justice work. Whether we pursue policies that result in a more equitable distribution of economic benefits from the vantage point of unions, women’s organizations, civil rights groups, or other progressive organizations and coalitions, putting black women’s well-being at the center of our strategies is central to building an economy that truly does work for everyone.