Email this article to a friend

Working In These Times

Wednesday, Feb 1, 2012, 4:06 pm

Replacing Factories With Jails: Just 44% of Milwaukee’s Black Men in Workforce

BY Roger Bybee

City has lost three-fourths of its manufacturing jobs since 1960s

MILWAUKEE—Wisconsin’s economic problems are only deepening the political crisis for Gov. Scott Walker, already the target of a massive recall campaign that gathered 1.1 signatures from Wisconsinites.

Despite Walker’s pledge to preside over the creation of 250,000 jobs by 2015, Wisconsin has lost jobs for the past six months as the rest of the country has added them, and job losses have totaled more than 35,000 since he signed his highly controversial state budget last June.

But there is a more specific economic (and social) crisis facing Milwaukee: Just 44.7 percent of African-American males are still part of the workforce, reflecting the long-term decimation and relocation of the city’s industrial based and the lingering effects of the Great Recession.

Even for African-American males in their prime working years (25 to 54), only 52 percent were in the workforce. “That took me aback,” stated Marc Levine, author of the new study illuminating the appalling level of joblessness in the city’s black community.

"The most striking finding was the extent to which black employment rate has declined across all the heavily-industrialized cities of the Northeast and Midwest, like Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Buffalo,” said Levine, director emeritus of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center on Urban Development.

These cities have been hit by three waves of industrial shifts, first to the suburban ring, then to “the right-to-work states of the anti-union South,” and finally offshoring to low-wage, repressive nations like China and Mexico, said Levine.

With 54 percent of Milwaukee’s black workers employed in manufacturing in 1970, “The unraveling of manufacturing affected blacks here more than in other cities,” Levine noted. “All of the old industrial cities have been hit across the board, but Milwaukee with its especially large industrial base was really affected.”

As the study documents,

No metro area has witnessed more precipitous erosion in the labor market for black males over the past 40 years than has Milwaukee. The 2010 data, however, revealed a new nadir for black male employment in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee has lost a three-fourths of its manufacturing jobs since the 1960s, representing a giant canyon of destroyed opportunities. In the city long called “the Machine Tool Capital of the World” in recognition of its highly-skilled industrial workforce, only about 26,000 manufacturing jobs remain.

The loss of these jobs has been accompanied by a substantial drop in family incomes in the city. Milwaukee's median household income, adjusted for inflation, plummeted
 a stunning 21.9 percent since 1999, according to new U.S. Census data. That's well over twice the national average of 8.9 percent.

But along with the impact of de-industrialization and de-unionization affecting the entire working class, African Americans in Milwaukee have faced “hyper-segregated conditions, with 88 percent of the blacks in the metro area concentrated in the central city, said Levine. With many lacking cars and public transportation to the suburbs—where almost all employment increases have occurred—the inner city economy has radically changed over the past four decades.

“In the new economy of the inner city, there are only 4,800 blacks employed in production now,” a small fraction of a once-huge African-American industrial working class, said Levine. “At the same time, every year we have about 5,000 African-American males entering the prison system. ... We’ve seen the twin phenomena of the loss of factory jobs and a poorly-conceived war on drugs. As a result, almost 50 percent of Milwaukee’s black males are in jail, in prison, on probation, on parole, somewhere in the system.”

Milwaukee’s corporate leaders and media have continued to promote  job training as the central solution to both high unemployment in the central city and a shortage of skilled workers:

The new chairman of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state's biggest and most vocal business lobby, ... vowed to tackle an issue that's infuriated plant managers for years: a chronic inability to fill manufacturing jobs for lack of qualified or willing candidates.

Todd Teske, president and chief executive of Wauwatosa-based Briggs & Stratton Corp., said he would make the skills mismatch his top priority during the two-year rotating chairmanship of the 101-year old business group….

Industrial jobs are the core of Wisconsin's middle class, Teske said: "But those jobs are threatened by a number of factors including a shortage of skilled industrial workers to fill existing and expected job vacancies."

But for Levine, the training strategy championed by Teske and WMC is bound for failure. “It represents the tried and true approach for those who won’t face up to the fact that the private sector isn’t filling the need for jobs, but don’t want to challenge the private sector or their investment decisions.”

Briggs, for example, has moved thousands of jobs to Mexico and China.

"It’s not a skills shortage, it’s a shortage of private-sector job creation,” Levine says.

With Corporate America clearly opting out of domestic job creation—2.9 million jobs were eliminated in the United States since 2000, while 2.4 million were created offshore—local, state, and federal officials could confront the jobs crisis with a strategy that directly creates jobs, boosts consumer demand, and repairs America’s deteriorating infrastructure.

“We need Keynesian measures to build consumer demand, said Levine. “We need direct government involvement to rebuild the infrastructure, renovate our transportation systems, and update our communications system. All of these will also build broader consumer demand.”

The absence of jobs and income so acutely afflicting blacks in Milwaukee—and Americans of all colors across the nation—will not be cured by wishful thinking about the “insourcing” of jobs hailed by President Obama in recent speeches.

“Insourcing is a very, very minor trend,” Levine, pointing out that Milwaukee’s Master Lock  (also see here ), although much celebrated (sometimes incorrectly) has only brought back a small share of the jobs it sent to Mexico. Still, the vastly-downsized United Auto Workers Local 469 is grateful for the addition of about 100 jobs over the last year;  a minimum of 800 Master Lock jobs had been shipped off to Mexico and China.

The depth of suffering in Milwaukee’s African-American community and elsewhere caused by the jobs shortage demands urgent action, not hope that “the private sector” to step forward. But when President Obama has talked about the need for job creation in recent months, he has stressed the need for private-sector” involvement.

Meanwhile, indifferent CEOs of major corporations sit on unprecedented trillions in reserves, and continue exporting jobs south of the border and overseas.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

View Comments