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"Memphis Since King: Race and Labor in the City,"

by David Ciscel & Michael Honey March/April 2009 issue of Poverty & Race

In 1968, African Americans in Memphis had good reason to hope for a future of racial equality. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 promised equal treatment in public accommodations and employment, while the 1965 Voting Rights Act promised equal access to the ballot. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called these legislative victories “phase one” of the freedom struggle. Speaking to 1,300 striking black sanitation strikers and about 10,000 of their supporters in Memphis on March 18, King called for phase two, a “struggle for genuine equality, which means economic equality.” Traveling the country to organize his Poor People’s Campaign, King sought redistribution of wealth and power and a shift from military spending to economic development. In Memphis, King added unionization and work rights to his demands.

King lost his life to an assassin in Memphis 41 years ago on April 4. The election of Barack Obama as President seems to at least partially confirm phase one’s success. But what has become of phase two? Looking closely at the Memphis economy, we see why a vast racial divide continues in an America that has barely begun to address phase two of the freedom struggle.

What Became of King’s Dream of Union Rights?

Memphis sanitation workers won union rights and some control over their work as the result of the hard struggle of 1968. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) for a time became the largest union local in Memphis and the State of Tennessee. (See Poverty and Race, March/April 2007). The success of the lowly sanitation workers broke down barriers to public employee unions and led police officers, teachers and other municipal workers to unionize and improve their wages and conditions dramatically.

But despite union advances in the public sector, the economy of 1968 still devastated most black workers. Better-paid industrial occupations employed very few black men and largely excluded black women. Memphis had only a few black white-collar professionals—doctors, accountants and lawyers. Licensed black plumbers, pipe fitters, heating and air conditioning workers or electricians, salespeople, secretaries and clerical workers remained scarce, frozen out by white employers and craft unionists.

Most African Americans still worked in personal service, as laborers, or as the perpetual assistant, doing the hard labor for the white craftsman as they had done for generations. Opportunities for African Americans remained circumscribed at almost every turn. In the 1970s, economic downturns and federal cutbacks to urban budgets held wages in check. In the tidal wave of 1980s deregulation, taxes shifted from the wealthy to the working class, while factory closings and massive assaults on union rights undercut the wages and job control of workers everywhere.

In Memphis, intense employer and government opposition in a “right to work” state (state law actively discouraging full union membership for workers in a plant or shop) stopped public employee unionism from expanding into the rapidly and massively growing hospital and health care sector. At the same time, large industrial production—in the form of International Harvester farm implements, Firestone tires, RCA televisions—shut down in Memphis.

Multinational corporations like RCA moved work to cheaper labor markets in Asia and Latin America, devastating working-class incomes.

Workers couldn’t win in this economic and political climate. In 1980, the Memphis Furniture Company, employing hundreds of black women, waged a campaign to break their union. The women went on strike, gained support from Coretta Scott King and civil rights activists and defeated the company’s union-busting. Memphis Furniture simply shut its doors, eliminating their jobs.

Due to the economic downturn for unskilled and factory workers in the 1980s, black men disproportionately lost jobs. Black women remained the only breadwinner for many black families. Gone with unionized factories was the dream for non-college- educated workers of a good job that can provide a decent life based on honest labor. From 1969 to 2008, manufacturing jobs fell from 22.9% to 8.5% of all Memphis regional employment, while jobs as a whole rose from 236,000 to 639,400. As manufacturing declined, so did unions. Those manufacturers that remained paid less: In 2007, the Memphis manufacturing sector averaged a mere $30,400 for full-time work—less than the per capita income in the region and barely enough for a living wage for a family of three.

The loss of unionized jobs has produced people without health care benefits, families that can no longer afford to send children to college or even keep them in high school. Many families plunged into utter destitution and couldn’t even keep a roof over their heads. The shifting economic terrain hit the black working poor the hardest and black communities the worst. As Census data show, the historically disadvantaged remained mired in poverty.

Black Workers and The New Economy

According to the conventional economic wisdom, lost industrial jobs would be replaced by other kinds of jobs that would elevate the black working class. For professional, highly-educated people in Memphis, some dramatic improvements did occur, creating and expanding the black middle class. But, as King feared, much of the black working class got left behind. The service economy of Memphis that has developed in the last 20 years created jobs with few training requirements and also with few ladders to better employment, and with almost no job control by workers.

Into the place of manufacturing stepped new service industries of logistics (transportation, warehousing and wholesale trade) and medical services. Globalization of industry requires lengthy and complicated supply chains. Unions represent less than a quarter of transportation and warehouse workers in general, and the percentage is clearly less in the Memphis area, where only the airline pilots are consistently unionized. Yet Memphis became a key player in the global supply chain, a place where workers stored products, repackaged products from big boxes into little boxes, and shipped products produced everywhere in the world to be sold through new mega-marketing outlets like Target and Wal-Mart. In this economy, the work was hard, the pay was low, jobs were non-union and work was scheduled totally by the employer. The opposite of the skilled employment and expansion of education predicted by conventional economists occurred.

The service economy did deliver thousands of new jobs. Service jobs grew five-fold from 1966 to 2008, populating the landscape with new employment in logistics, medical services, gaming, hotels and restaurants. But the employment of guards, clerks, orderlies, servers and other temporary workers delivered few promotional opportunities and less income stability than manufacturing had in the past. Workers learned the jobs almost exclusively on-the-job, and their low wages afforded little access to enhance their education and skills. Service jobs were defined and structured to be even more interchangeable than the old factory assembly jobs, and the workers were just as expendable.

Most importantly, work became temporary. The new jobs only existed when a new rail/truck shipment arrived for storage, for repacking or for shipment. For warehouse workers, for many transportation workers, for the multitude of guards and security personnel, for the “customer associates” in retail trade, and for the army of new medical personnel, training and education were beside the point. Employer restructuring of working conditions meant the beginning of the end for the 9-5, Monday through Friday, 40-hour week. Mandatory overtime was followed by mandatory short time. The new job structure expected and even encouraged worker turnover.

The African-American worker who had once anticipated joining the unionized manufacturing workforce stepped into this new world. While some beat their way through the regional community college and university systems into new high-tech jobs, most workers found themselves resigned to jobs devoid of collective action, their future limited by occupational segregation now enforced through educational credentials (or the lack thereof), their job rights transferred almost entirely to the employer.

A hopeful development occurred as African Americans increasingly gained sales jobs in trade, clerical jobs in offices, technical jobs in medical services, and driving and supervisory jobs in logistics, from which they had been previously excluded. But the opening of these segments of the labor market to blacks did not bring affluence. Instead, increased managerial control and the decline of unions held down wages and made these jobs far less satisfying than black workers had expected.

FedEx and Corporate Medicine: the New Job Segregation

In Memphis, the overnight package company Federal Express is part of the logistics sector, that combination of transportation, warehousing and computer scheduling that defines the way we move products across the globe to retailers and finally consumers. FedEx is at the top of the logistics pyramid – moving high-value goods, organizing supply systems and providing the link among far-flung producers, warehouses and retailers. But beneath FedEx is a vast array of jobs with every component of this system, maybe as many as a 100,000 in the Memphis regional economy.

FedEx helped re-invent the way we work. The result is the flexible, incessant job. Those in the modern supply chain—warehouses, airports hubs, trucks and airplanes—work when they are needed for as long as they are needed. Sanitation workers would clearly recognize this never-ending work week, one of the causes of their 1968 strike. The new distribution economy includes whites, blacks and Latinos, and especially women, but what it does not provide is equality or prosperity for the worker.

Today’s world is supposedly based on merit—but the façade of educational advancement often hides a rigid structure of occupational segregation that traps minorities in low-rung jobs while allowing those in the middle and upper classes to easily pass on the best jobs to their next generation.

Nowhere is this job model more clearly delineated than in medical services, the other dynamic economic sector in the Mid-South. Three large hospital corporations, plus a public hospital, dominate, and, except for small portions of the public hospital, the entire system is non-union. Jobs in the medical services sector are large in number, and the numbers only grow. Many of the workplaces are 24/7 operations. Work is very hierarchical, with authority concentrated at the top both professionally (physicians) and organizationally (managers).

But there are thousands of entry-level jobs. Cleaners, orderlies, and licensed vocational and practical nurses come from the vast supply of African Americans and an increasingly large Latino working class in the region. These jobs mostly pay poorly, with few benefits. But while these workers work next to and with nurses, therapists, physician’s assistants and physicians, they are rarely promoted or trained on the job for these higher-paying crafts. Managerial power to define occupations, to limit learning by doing, and to set the conditions of daily work organization dominates the workplace.

These two industries—logistics and medical services—define the conditions of work in Memphis for both black and white workers. Logistics requires fluidity and flexibility, with little emphasis on training, and with work following the material needs of the supply chain. Medical services are hierarchical and rigid, using the educational system to organize its segregated occupational structure. But both industries have built employment conditions that emphasize: (1) 24/7 on-demand work from workers; (2) job control that is completely externalized from the worker; and (3) use of contract/temporary labor as a component of the labor market discipline.

The worker in Memphis has thus moved through the entire cycle. Black workers moved out of personal service, agricultural day labor and general laborer status, but the result proved the opposite of King’s dream.

Labor, Race and Poverty Today

One of the most celebrated aspects of the civil rights legacy is the advance of black elected officials. Memphis optimists today point to a city with powerful black political elites, who, from the mayor on down, control local and regional government. Those with higher education have made their way into university teaching, and a suburban black professional class serves a vibrant and growing medical sector. It is a city of several large corporate headquarters, and the city derives it dynamism from the headquarters and operating centers of FedEx. A strong tourist industry celebrates the National Civil Rights Museum and the legacy of King and black political power.

Yet Memphis remains a city with high poverty and inner-city crime rates, a weak educational system, and a population still separated by race and class. As many whites and some blacks move out of the city to escape its taxes and weakened school system, generations of slavery, job segregation, poor education, job and union loss, and government neglect have produced a sub-proletariat of permanently poor people. King’s promise of a future of freedom and equality remains a promise unfulfilled.

Workers and unions in America today are often hanging on by a thread, and Memphis is no different. Even the unionized sanitation workers have barely kept up with the increasing cost of living, and incomes for many of them hover only slightly above the poverty line. For others who never unionized, it is even worse. Census records show that a little more than 20% of the population (144,927 people) lived in poverty in Memphis and Shelby County in 1969. By 2004, that had fallen by only 1 percentage point, but, based on overall population growth, 171,289 people lived in poverty. In the Mid-South region as a whole, which takes in many rural areas, nearly 30% of African Americans today live in poverty.

In 2005, African-American workers had median earnings of $20,833 per year—about $10.00 per hour. In working-class jobs, men do worse than women. Full-time black male workers earn a little over 64% of what white males earn, while full-time black female workers earn almost 83% of what white female workers earn. Blacks and whites and Latinos tend to work in different occupations and different industries and neighborhoods. More than four decades since King, the general trend toward less equality, toward fewer manufacturing jobs, and toward more expensive education has frustrated black workers. Today, Memphis is the home of the flexible, service-based job that often traces its employer of record to a staffing agency, a job that sometimes requires 20 hours a week and sometimes demands 60 hours, a job that comes and goes, and a job that often is most compatible with the powerlessness of the undocumented worker.

The story of African Americans in Memphis illustrates the need to return to King’s call for economic equality. One simple answer to today’s work problems is job control. Until workers can once again “own” their jobs, the path to equality will remain grown over with the briars of corporate power. A contingent job not only robs the employee of compensation but of the right to be part of the production process. A job without advancement potential reduces on-the-job innovation, productivity and pride. But these sorts of jobs are just exactly what we have created in the last 41 years. Not coincidentally, many African Americans and a growing host of Latino immigrants, both groups historically disadvantaged by generations of exploitation and discrimination, remain at the bottom of the economy.

The Needed Path to Economic Equality

To set us on the path to economic equality, instead of policies that enhance inequality, we need policies that return control back to the workers. Three basic changes would allow working men and women to hold the sign “I Am A Man,” used in the sanitation strike of 1968, and have it signify the reality of their daily working life.

First, the restoration and encouragement of unionization by governmental authorities is a basic necessity. The Employee Free Choice Act [see article, p. 3] and other labor reforms would allow workers faced by powerful corporate employers to deliver a better future for themselves. In the modern 24/7 logistics and retail economies, unions would balance the needs of the lives of workers against the constant downward pressure on wages and benefits.

Second, at the regional level, occupational entrance rules need to shift away from educational credentials and state licenses back towards learning-by-doing and direct worker control of occupational standards.

Third, and related, control of the job by workers or their representatives would reduce the alienation from today’s here-today, gone-tomorrow work environment. The union shop of yesterday proved workers to be a real countervailing power to the corporate desire for profits and control over the work process. Something like that needs to happen again.

Memphis today has the same or greater potential than in 1968. The economy, from a finance point of view, is fairly vibrant. African Americans have entered numerous occupations from which they were excluded in 1968. Education has improved at the primary and secondary levels while African-American admission and matriculation at the college level has soared. But while the façade of social equality is apparent everywhere, Memphis has also remained a highly segregated and unequal society—largely mirroring the American society around it.

The problem is straightforward. There is less ability to struggle for economic equality in today’s economy than in the economy of Martin Luther King’s era. While social equality has risen between races and genders, job rights have vanished into the structures of the global economy. Without control of the job in the clinic, at the warehouse or on the showroom floor, modern workers may find that they work with men and women of other ethnic backgrounds, but none of them earn a living wage. If you don’t quite believe this picture of the modern workplace, come to Memphis.

David Ciscel is Dean of the Business School at Christian Brothers Univ. in Memphis and Prof. Emeritus of Economics at the Univ. of Memphis, and has served as a consultant to the St. Louis Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank on regional economic issues. ciscel@bellsouth. net
Michael Honey is Haley Professor of Humanities at the Univ. of Washington, Tacoma and author most recently of Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (W.W. Norton, 2007). m.honey

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