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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