The Invisible Army of Unemployed

Stephen Franklin

Mas­sive num­bers of work­ers have been swept out of the job mar­ket in the eco­nom­ic avalanche we call the reces­sion and their depar­ture has been vir­tu­al­ly invis­i­ble in the public’s eye.

They are black males who were mak­ing finan­cial gains in the 1990s only to have them wiped out or whit­tled away in the last few years.

How large is this grow­ing army of jobless?

Andrew Sum, a vet­er­an ana­lyst of the fate of the nation’s work­ers, and eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor at North­east­ern Uni­ver­si­ty, came up with some stun­ning fig­ures a while ago.

Between Novem­ber 2007 and March 2009, black males suf­fered a 9 per­cent job shrink­age, the high­est rate of job loss for any group, accord­ing to Sum. Most of the job loss­es, he found, have come among the youngest black work­ers, those with the least edu­ca­tion, and those in blue-col­lar jobs.

But the set­backs do not stop there for the black community.

Ear­li­er this year Alger­non Austin of the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute point­ed out that the unem­ploy­ment rate for African-Africans with four-year col­lege degrees was twice as high as the respec­tive white rate. So despite the wide­ly accept­ed notion that col­lege is the gate­way to suc­cess, edu­ca­tion has not turned out to be a guar­an­tee of job sta­bil­i­ty for a num­ber of black col­lege grads dur­ing the ongo­ing avalanche.

Think Detroit and Gary, Ind., and any num­ber of Mid­west cities and towns where black men were able to climb into the mid­dle class on the strength of their back and will­ing­ness to put up with soul-numb­ing blue-col­lar jobs, and then, with luck and grit, move into a man­age­ment position.

Now think of those places where the auto plants and auto parts plants and all of the small man­u­fac­tur­ing plants are clos­ing down or lay­ing off work­ers by the droves.

These were the men who pushed the rate of black mem­ber­ship in the nation’s unions dur­ing the last 30 years to a high­er lev­el than that of whites. They are being rushed out of the fac­to­ries’ doors in an eco­nom­ic slide that is car­ry­ing away count­less blue-col­lar jobs.

Though blue-col­lar jobs have been steadi­ly van­ish­ing in this coun­try, there has always been a group who wait­ed through hard times, hunch­ing down and telling them­selves to hang on because some of the work will come back.

I’ve met them again and again in bars and union halls and food pantries across the Midwest.

Their hearts will be bro­ken this time.

Most of those jobs are not com­ing back. And many black mid­dle-class fac­to­ry work­ers, who suf­fered through wage cuts that left them with no real wage gains and severe loss­es in their ben­e­fits in the last decade, have been plunged into unem­ploy­ment for who knows how long.

I see and hear the sto­ries about job­less Amer­i­ca. But I don’t see many of these men on my tele­vi­sion screen or in my news­pa­per. They are not the major sto­ry, even though their suf­fer­ing is the greatest.

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

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