It's time to get real about working class jobs

Good union factory jobs have been on a steady decline for decades. Growing working class sectors need our support

By David Masciotra

Published September 23, 2017 11:00AM (EDT)


My grandfather was the toughest man I ever met. A decorated soldier in World War II, he returned home to work in the Material Service Quarry of Thornton, Illinois. His body, more than flesh and bones, resembled an iron slab, and with his broad shoulders, thick forearms, and 6’2” frame, he cut quite a picture, especially while walking into his favorite small town diner holding the hand of his tiny six-year-old grandson.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” adults asked me on a routine basis. I wanted to be my grandfather, and one day in the diner, over plates of cheeseburgers and French fries, I told him.

“I’m going to work in the quarry like you did, Boppa.”

“No, you’re a smart boy,” he said. “You should do something that lets you use your mind. Besides, jobs like the one I had are going to be hard to get soon.”

My grandfather’s accurate forecast of the American economy, and the practical advice he gave me, would qualify him, according to the comically absurd discourse of contemporary political culture, as “an elitist.”

Apparently, anyone who acknowledges reality is an enemy of the working class, even if the wise and honest observer, like my grandfather, is indisputably proletariat.

Forty years ago, Youngstown, Ohio experienced the shock of what now exists in history as “Black Monday.” Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co.’s Campbell Works closed the doors of its mill and sent its employees out into the bread lines to find other sources of income. Steel and manufacturing had provided Youngstown with its livelihood for 100 years, and Black Monday began the steady demolition of industry as employment and revenue benefactor.

In the same year as Black Monday – 1977 – manufacturing employment peaked in the United States, accounting for 22 percent of the non-agricultural payroll. Escalating deindustrialization created urban decay and high unemployment throughout the late ’70s and early ‘80s, and after a significant spike from 1982-’84, the decrease in manufacturing employment continued, largely unabated, up until the present. Currently, 8.8 percent of American workers are employed in manufacturing.

My grandfather recognized what still mystifies President Donald Trump, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and a seemingly endless bevy of repetitive commentators, whose maudlin and historically illiterate references to “factories” and “foundry towns” accompany their retrograde economic analysis.

“The jobs like the one I had are going to be hard to get.” Anyone with minimal lucidity cannot help but wonder why all of the people applauding Trump’s empty promise to “bring the jobs back,” or decrying the decline of antiquated industries, have not spoken similar words to their children and grandchildren, not to mention the face in the mirror.

Before and after the election of Donald Trump, Americans have had to endure countless reports on West Virginia, showcasing the hollowing out of small towns that have watched companies close their mine shafts. The shots of young, unemployed men pensively staring out the window, betting on Trump to perform a miracle, never have the moderation of reality. U.S. employment in the mining industry peaked in 1923. Due to increasingly sophisticated mechanization, it has steadily declined since the decade when consumption of alcohol was illegal, the personal computer did not exist, and Ernest Hemingway was a debut novelist.

Such an elementary observation will undoubtedly provoke accusations of insensitivity, but people should have the responsibility to prepare, if not themselves, their children and young relatives for economic change multiple decades in the making.

If political debate has now narrowed its focus on the plight and pain of the working class, it is unwise to allow 12 million manufacturing workers, many of whom are engineers and computer programmers, to hold the entire conversation hostage.

There are millions of certified nursing assistants and home health aide workers whose hourly wages are barely above their respective state minimums. In the demonstration of unfortunate irony, many home health agencies do not offer their employees healthcare.

Millions of direct service providers earn below $30,000 every year for their dedication to society’s most powerless citizens: the developmentally disabled and seniors with dementia.

Unlike manufacturing, which, due to unpreventable automation, will only continue to decline, service for the disabled, mentally ill and rapidly aging population will become a priority of significant urgency. Anyone not wearing the blindfold of nostalgia for a permanently lost age of steel lunch boxes and assembly lines should support the encouragement, through wage growth and benefit improvement, of workers to stay in professions of care.

The social workers who assist in the administration and oversight of care for the indigent, infirm and ill often live under the financial fear and chaos of municipalities and states looking to balance their budgets through the elimination or reduction of social services.

Meanwhile, there are millions of retail and low-wage service employees who constitute the oxymoronic category – “working poor.”

America’s obsession with the “glory days” of manufacturing employment — the subject of countless portraits of physical and emotional misery in art, entertainment and journalism — demonstrates nostalgia not only for torturous jobs but also misplaced sentimentality for patriarchal breadwinners.

Factory work represents a traditional way of life for many Americans. It is a mythologized notion of suburban harmony when all the men worked for a salary at the mill, all the women stayed home and made a delicious meal for their families and all the children were free to roam the neighborhood without supervision. There was a flag on every porch and a Bible in every living room.

It is clear that the cultural preference of baby boomers drives discourse more than any economic calculus, given that in 1977, the unemployment rate was 7.1 percent, but more important, the most critical reason for the desirability of manufacturing employment rarely receives acknowledgment at a Trump rally or in the pages of newspapers bleeding buckets of ink over the eyesores of abandoned factories.

Working in the mill or foundry allowed people to earn a decent salary and enjoy generous benefits only because of organized labor. In 1977, 21.7 percent of private sector workers belonged to a union. Now, it is 6.4 percent.

Anyone who goes on a crying jag about the loss of manufacturing employment without aggressively advocating for robust private sector unions is a fool or a fraud.

Rather than pay attention to politicians who pander or pundits who moralize according to cliché when the subject of manufacturing emerges, I will remember the words of my grandfather. Among his many admirable qualities, he did not suffer fools.

David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters" (Bloomsbury Publishing) and "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" (University Press of Kentucky, 2015).

MORE FROM David Masciotra