William Spriggs Was the Economist Who Fought for the Entire Working Class

William Spriggs Was the Economist Who Fought for the Entire Working Class

William Spriggs Was the Economist Who Fought for the Entire Working Class

From his days as a graduate student union leader, he championed an intersectional vision of economic, social, and racial justice.


Economists often talk about the role labor unions play in transforming workplaces and society, but rare is the economic scholar who has actually led a union local during a period of intense, and ultimately transformational, struggle. William Spriggs, the assistant secretary of labor in the Obama administration and former chief economist for the AFL-CIO, who died last week at age 68, was such an economist and such a leader.

As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin—where he earned his master’s degree in economics in 1979 and PhD in economics in 1984—Spriggs served as copresident of the Teaching Assistants’ Association (American Federation of Teachers, Local 3220), a groundbreaking campus labor union that fought a successful battle to expand collective bargaining rights for graduate students. The fight on the Madison campus took on national significance, providing a framework not just for organizing on campuses across the country but also for understanding diverse and activist unions as agents of economic, social, and racial liberation.

With Penny Schantz, who went on to serve in Paris as the AFL-CIO’s international representative, Spriggs was elected to lead the local after a campaign that promised to expand the scope and character of the union with an organizing strategy that sought to “institutionalize input of women, minority, gay, foreign student, undergraduate, WSA, faculty, staff, and other campus workers.” It was a broad vision for organizing that borrowed from what was best about the industrial unionism of the past and supercharged it with an understanding—rooted in the movements of the 1960s and ’70s—of the need to make racial and social justice central to the mission of the groups that organized around economic issues.

That is the vision that Spriggs carried into his service as an economist who stood squarely on the side of the entire working class.

Unwilling to accept the narrow and cautious approaches that too frequently identified economists merely as the observers of great struggles, Spriggs adopted a bold, activist approach that was grounded in data, deeply engaged with the real-life struggles of workers, and passionate about achieving equity. A brilliant scholar, he showed his colleagues how to examine issues with fresh perspectives—as he did with a PhD dissertation on barriers to the accumulation of wealth by Black workers in the “Jim Crow” Virginia economy of the early 20th century. That project won Spriggs the 1985 dissertation prize from the National Economic Association, the organization of Black economists that Spriggs would fifteen years later serve as president.

The dissertation set the tone for four decades of research and leadership by a scholar-activist of great intellect and great conscience, who went on to chair the economics department at Howard University, helped to define the Economic Policy Institute’s work on labor issues, led the National Commission for Employment Policy and the National Wage Record Database Design Project Report for the Clinton administration, served as assistant secretary for policy in Obama’s Labor Department, and spent the last decade of his life teaching economics at Howard and working with the AFL-CIO.

Larry Mishel, a fellow UW grad student who, like Spriggs, went on to work with the EPI, recalled his colleague as a man who “wanted to become the best economist he could and then use those skills to advance Black people.” President Biden described Spriggs as “a towering figure in his field, a trailblazer who challenged the field’s basic assumptions about racial discrimination in labor markets, pay equity, and worker empowerment.”

The demand that Spriggs made was a vital one. As Damon Silvers, who served for many years as the AFL-CIO’s policy director, explained: “Bill insisted that the labor movement understand that economic and racial justice could not be separated.” That insistence was on full display in June 2020, when Spriggs responded to the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests with an open letter that called out the racist roots of modern economics and argued that, “The overwhelming majority of explorations of racial disparities in economic outcomes remains deeply tied to that view of race as an exogenous variable. In the hands of far too many economists, it remains with the assumption that African Americans are inferior until proven otherwise.”

Spriggs concluded his letter by writing, “I hope we economists will focus on how we achieve systemic change. And we will have a better discipline for it. We should see, not just in understanding the brutal murder of George Floyd, that marginal changes like two more hours of sensitivity training for police will not bring justice; but in this brutal economy flat on its back, that marginal analysis will not restore economic balance and performance. I hope we will not chase endlessly for the right instrument to identify some narrow policy goal that on the margin might lift wages by 2 percent, all else equal, but again ask the big questions about understanding the institutions that created our massive inequality.”

That willingness to ask the big questions was what distinguished William Spriggs. It is also what inspired the next generation of scholar-activists. Indeed, when Biden considered appointing Spriggs to head the Labor Department, the Teaching Assistants Association championed his candidacy of the economist who once led their union local with a recollection of his work on behalf of multiracial, multiethnic unionism. Their advocacy expressed the faith that William Spriggs advanced throughout his career: “All workers, but particularly women and particularly Black and brown women, deserve a Secretary of Labor who will fight for them in the halls of power.”

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