01/10/2012 04:29 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2012

Protecting Our Public Service Legacy

Working people have had a long, tough road in this country. This is especially true for women, people of color and people belonging to religious minorities. We have come far, we have farther to go, and it is important to remember how we got here.

We did not just break into the middle class by accident. Many of us had to work twice as hard to get where we are today. Trade unions and public-sector work are two important parts of that advancement. Unions allowed us to use our numbers to gain power. The development of a strong civil service opened economic opportunities for those outside the "good old boy" network. Generations of previously excluded families made better lives because of these two institutions.

Today, like so much in the union movement, that pathway to success is under attack. Government jobs are vanishing at a rate we haven't seen in decades. Since the start of the recession, the public sector has lost more than 500,000 positions, according to the Department of Labor. The number of city-funded employees declined by 13,878, or 5 percent, from FY 2008 to 2011, and is projected to decline by another 4,213 by the end of FY 2013, according to a report from the New York State Comptroller. Every day, there are more cuts.

Women and black Americans are affected by these cuts at much higher rates. One in every five black Americans is a government employee, which means millions of middle-class black people are at risk. "While women represented 57 percent of the public-sector work force at the end of the recession, women lost the vast majority -- 79 percent -- of the 327,000 jobs cut in this sector between July 2009 and February 2011."

Public-sector layoffs undermine everyone's quality of life. Every position eliminated represents not only one more unemployed person, but also fewer public services, fewer stable families, fewer opportunities for workers' futures. Our leaders must understand that the efforts to cut government jobs and hurt public-sector unions are an attack on the progress we all worked so hard to realize.

The national unemployment rate, actually inched lower, to 8.6 percent in November. For black Americans, however, it increased from 15.2 percent to 15.5 percent from October to November. That same month, Latinos saw no improvement with unemployment remaining at 11.4 percent. We cannot sit by as entire communities are hit much harder by the economic collapse.

Even with the bad economic news over the last several years, the private sector actually added a small number of jobs. This is a good thing. Private jobs create tax revenues, which pay for critical public services. But the debate is overly focused on private-sector employment. The nation's well-being depends not only on creating jobs, but on creating quality jobs. Many new private sector jobs aren't as good as the ones they replace. In contrast, public-sector jobs provide economic stability and make it possible for some of the nation's most marginalized -- women and minorities -- to achieve financial security often denied them in the private sector.

Some politicians have claimed that the government never created a single job. It is amazing that legislators can take these stances and still be taken seriously. The federal government alone helped create millions of jobs -- in the public and private sector -- by investing and offering much needed services to the public.

So what can we do? Unions and the communities we serve must increase our efforts to fight this war against government jobs. It is not simply a threat to the labor movement. It is a threat to the civil rights movement as well. That's why it's important that all Americans -- whether in a union or not -- help us save public-sector employment. We have been successful because of our shared history, common experiences and ability to band together to change this country. It's time to reunite and protect our collective interests.

It is no accident that Martin Luther King Jr. was both a great civil rights advocate and vocal union supporter. He understood the power of bringing people together, changing government and using public resources to lift people to a better place in society. His dream of equality was not only about social but also economic standing.

That transformation was too difficult to achieve in the private sector alone, and the public sector picked up a lot of the slack. Now we must protect that legacy.