Collective Bargaining Under Fire: When Bad Things Happen to Good People

05/18/2011 12:38 pm ET | Updated Jul 18, 2011

The over 100-year-old Urban League movement, born in New York City, is rightfully proud of its long and rich history. At our national office, the lobby is adorned not only with photos of past leaders but also letters, magazine covers and other mementos that symbolize the league's achievements.

A brief review of these walls tells the story of progress in fair housing, desegregation of education and elimination of barriers to employment from the entry level to the corporate suites. No win is greater than another. Yet, there is no arguing that some of the hardest-fought economic gains came as a result of greater participation by blacks in the public sector and labor movement, which was stubbornly resistant in the early 20th century but emerged a powerful ally in the 1960s.

Back then, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. considered the labor movement pivotal in bringing about the financial emancipation of blacks and other minorities nationwide.

"Our needs are identical with labor's needs decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor's demands and fight laws which curb labor," he said before the AFL-CIO in 1962.

New York has long served as a major stronghold for unions, especially in public sector, which now employs nearly 72 percent union workers statewide. Back in the late 19th century, it served as home to the American League of Color Laborers, the nation's very first organization of black workers.

In terms of union membership nationwide, it ranks as the U.S. top's state with 25 percent of New Yorkers in unions, according to the U.S. Census.

An increase in public sector and union jobs propelled more blacks and other minorities into the middle class, where they could afford to purchase homes and educate their children in a manner their grandchildren will never know.

In New York City, 37 percent of blacks are unionized, according to a 2010 City University of New York report. In addition, nearly one-fourth are classified as government workers, compared to 15 percent citywide, U.S. Census American Community Survey statistics show.

Now, as politicians all over the nation cast their scrutiny upon public-sector unions, middle-class blacks and other minorities, already forced to weather reduced earnings and personal wealth as a result of mortgage and economic meltdowns, face the prospect of yet another financial attack -- on their collective bargaining rights.

It is all happening amidst a swirl of disturbing news reports -- of historic corporate profits, major U.S. corporations paying no taxes, and CEO bonuses and the stock market rebounding to pre-Great Recession of 2008 levels.

Meanwhile, unemployment hovers at nearly 8.9 percent in New York City, and our economy continues to shed jobs, especially in the public sector, where nearly 31,000 were lost in 2010 with more on the horizon, according a recent state Department of Labor report.

It is obviously a wake-up call for our nation's leaders to re-think their budget-cutting motives and find ways to more equitably distribute the burden. The backlash from union supporters in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere should also serve as a cautionary tale to New York lawmakers looking to resolve budgetary woes through weakening collective bargaining.

All Americans and New Yorkers -- whether rich or poor -- should be called upon to bear their fair share of belt-tightening in order for us to survive this current economic crisis. It is my greatest hope that our children and grandchildren will not look back on 2011 as the time when school teachers lost their jobs while students lost their chance of getting strong educations required to obtain solid jobs in adulthood.

Or as the time when the mailman lost his home while CEOs were able to buy second, third or fourth investment properties. Or as the time when the collective bonuses of Wall Street executives returned to astronomical levels while collective bargaining all but disappeared.

Let us make sure that our youth and their children will not recall this point in history as the time when really bad policies made good people suffer disproportionately.