Images of Latino, Native American, black, and Asian Wisconsinites are proving elusive in the media coverage of the fight for workers’ rights beyond a week-old appearance by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Despite this visual absence it remains evident to many that people of color have much to lose in Gov. Scott Walker’s recently passed state “repair” bill. The bill unnecessarily eliminates workers’ collective bargaining rights while cutting state health care contributions, pensions contributions, and protected leave. This fateful move will especially affect people of color, as with all legislated inequalities. A blow to any group’s rights always hits those facing other structural disadvantages the hardest.
A look at some Wisconsin demographics underscores the state’s growing populations of color. Wisconsin is home to 135,058 Asian-descended people, 332,660 black people, and 276,244 Latinos according to American Community Survey estimates. The Latino community has grown 70 percent since 2000, from 192, 921. The number of Asian descendants in Wisconsin has also increased from 111,428 in 2000.
But the argument that much is at stake for people of color in Wisconsin is less about demographic statistics than what disadvantages these communities will face without workplace protections and fair, competitive benefits. The governor’s attack on workers’ rights is clearly an attack on all people in the public sector. But curbing the right of workers to bargain for better pay and working conditions will have a multiplier effect in communities of color.
Wisconsin’s employment prospects under repealed worker protections means that Wisconsin’s working-class and middle-class residents will be working longer hours with less job security and lower take-home pay. That means greater competition for jobs with little to no benefits. And it also means people who may have once been covered by pre-Walker bill benefits are at greater risk for economic stagnation.
Widespread economic stagnation caused by low working standards does not bode well for workers with lower levels of education, the least industry-specific training, linguistic barriers, and those belonging to groups that historically faced discrimination in hiring. It is well documented that Latino and black adults hold fewer degrees than their white counterparts, are less mobile in their careers, and are less likely to acquire or maintain quality employment in times of widespread economic strain.
If Gov. Walker’s applied cuts to workers’ collective bargaining, health care contributions, pension, and protected leave take hold at the end of their fiscal year in June, public-sector workers will face about 8 percent in lost income. The loss of real income caused by mandated employee-paid increases to health care coverage and pension programs would hit communities of color the hardest as less take-home pay means less assets for workers who statistically have less to fall back on than their white counterparts.
Workers of color already suffer due to less take-home pay, and these effects would only grow worse under Gov. Walker’s bill. A 2010 study by the Joint Center concluded that before the recession whites in Wisconsin held on average $116,246 in wealth while people of color averaged $5,706. The sustained economic downturn has meant that people of color, like whites, have been forced to liquidate what little assets they could access with little room for recovery, fewer financial resources, and increased debt.
The recession’s lost opportunities to earn substantial wages or retain savings means greater proportions of communities of color fell into debt than others. These losses led to the acceptance of lower employment and working standards out of financial desperation. Wisconsin’s dramatic curbing of workers’ rights will only cement the susceptibility of low-income and financially desperate employment seekers to workplace exploitation.
We haven’t seen many workers of color in Wisconsin protesting this legislative calamity. But we shouldn’t conclude that their absence is a result of exemption or ambivalence. Based on what we know about workers of color we can safely infer that many simply do not work jobs that allow them to take off work for legitimate reasons with the guarantee that they will still be employed upon return.
The landscape of protest could change over the weekend, however, as advocacy groups across the country mobilize around the essential right to organize to advance a common goal.
Unless our ire is stoked and something critical is done to protect the essential right to organize, the repercussions of Gov. Walker’s bill will undoubtedly begin first and end last with unprotected workers of color.
Folayemi Agbede is the Special Assistant for Progress 2050, a project of the Center for American Progress that develops new ideas for an increasingly diverse America.