The Opportunities of Our Economic Crisis

By Guest Columnist Feb 17, 2009

by Steven Pitts Center for Labor Research and Education Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Congress just passed the much needed stimulus plan. It was very much an imperfect plan: too many tax cuts, too small as an overall package. But compared to what would have happened if Bush still had been President or if McCain had won the election, the bill is very good and the political discussion has moved a long way from the old dominant right-wing view on the role of government and “free markets." We can now talk about how to use the government to help working people and people of color and talk about how to reign in the excesses of big corporations and banks. Still, we can’t forget about the need to specifically ask if the unique problems of communities of color are being addressed as the country tackles this big economic crisis. The New Deal of the 1930s provides us with a lesson on what happens when racial problems are not dealt with directly. For all of the many good things to come out of the new government programs during the Depression, one problem was that they were “color-blind” and nothing special was put forth to deal with the special ways the Depression affected Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans. Unfortunately, these “race-neutral” policies were applied to situations where racial discrimination was common. For example, many of the new laws didn’t apply to domestic and agricultural workers — where many people of color worked. In addition, local administrators were allowed to implement the programs and, therefore, local racial biases were allowed to flourish. Now, the United States today does not face the racial problems as in the 1930s, but the lesson remains: we can’t lower our racial guard. What does that mean now? Well, the two main problems facing people of color in the job market are being able to find jobs, if you are out of work, and being to find jobs that pay decently, if you have a job. The stimulus package will create jobs in the manufacturing and construction industries. Advocates must work with labor unions and local government officials to make sure that specific programs are developed so that communities of color have more access to these jobs than they do now. One model for this is the recent law passed by the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles which stipulates that new subsidized projects contain a strong local hire provision and that the jobs provide solid livable wages. In addition, the stimulus plan calls for the creation of “green jobs." Most of us are clear that these jobs must be made available to people of color. However, much less is talked about how to make sure these jobs are good-paying jobs. The good-paying manufacturing and construction jobs we hear did not pay well by accident or due to the good will of business owners. Workers formed unions and, through this collective power, they forced companies to pay better. So today, this means advocates must work with unions to see that the new green jobs are able to be union jobs. In addition to forming unions, we need to see how public monies can be used as leverage to require companies to pay decently, much like what happened in the Living Wage Movement. Without these steps, many of these jobs will be fated to be low-wage jobs. A common expression is that great opportunities emerge during great crises. We need to use the current economic crisis as an opportunity to end the second-class treatment of workers of color. Steve Pitts is a Labor Specialist at the Center for Labor Research and Education at UC Berkeley.