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Unions, Community Leaders Focus on Low-Wage Black Workers

Workers say low-wage airport jobs help keep Philadelphia No. 1 for poverty. (32BJ SEIU)
Workers say low-wage airport jobs help keep Philadelphia No. 1 for poverty. (32BJ SEIU)
July 12, 2016

PHILADELPHIA – A panel discussion at Philadelphia's City Hall on Monday threw a spotlight on the plight of low wage black workers.

The NAACP joined with union and community leaders to connect the dots between poverty, violence and the role of good paying jobs in relieving deep-seated racial disparities.

Derek Johnson, who serves on the NAACP national board of directors, says the most recent police killings of black men, and the shooting of police officers in Dallas, highlight the consequences of those disparities.

"You drive through any community that's considered a hostile community by police, I'll show you a community of individuals who are hard workers who are low paid workers," he states.

With the Democratic National Convention coming to town in a couple of weeks, Philadelphia could serve as a backdrop for a national discussion on the wide gap in employment opportunities between whites and people of color.

The poverty rate for African-Americans in Philadelphia is twice the poverty rate of whites.

Johnson points to low-wage Philadelphia airport workers' refusal last week to take a possible strike during the convention off the table as one way of fighting back.

"If the Democratic National Convention is their opportunity to leverage their collective voice to ensure that they can provide a quality life for their families, that's a positive strategic move," he states.

Many airport jobs that were once union jobs have been subcontracted out to non-union companies. Now the baggage handlers, aircraft cleaners and others are trying to organize with the Service Employees International Union.

The majority of low-wage airport service workers are African-American. Johnson notes that most of the benefits of the economic recovery have gone to high earners, while the majority of Americans are still feeling economic pain.

"And as a result of that, many communities seek to find the villain,” he says. “And unfortunately in this country the villain has always been based on racism or xenophobia."

The panel discussion looked at union organizing of low-wage workers as one important tool to help end the escalating violence in communities of color.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA