I had the opportunity to discuss the plight of America’s Black working class, something I wrote about in last week’s column, during the first hour of “AFRO First Edition,” on Nov. 17, when I spoke with Gerald Taylor, author of the new report, “Unmade in America: Industrial Flight and the Decline of Black Communities,” excerpts of which have appeared in the AFRO. Taylor, a doctoral student at Georgetown University, is a native of Youngstown, Ohio, where the population has plummeted from about 170,000 in 1970, to roughly 64,000 residents due greatly to industrial flight and joblessness, according to Taylor.
Sean Yoes (Courtesy Photo)
“More than half of the population of the city over just the past few decades, since the decline of steel the population has been cut in half,” Taylor said of his home town, whose population is roughly half Black and half White.
Taylor’s report indicates manufacturing in the 20th century was one of the main engines of the burgeoning Black Middle Class, allowing Black workers, many for the first time, to begin to build wealth. However, the massive loss of factory jobs negatively impacted Black communities disproportionately. He cited the plight of Black workers at Sparrows Point in Baltimore.
“The pressures of foreign competition, automation, and corporate cost-cutting and outsourcing produced catastrophic effects for American manufacturing workers, felt mainly as a wave of factory closings in the 1970’s and 1980’s,” Taylor reported. The Bethlehem Steel factory in Baltimore’s Sparrows Point, which once employed over 35,000 workers and produced millions of tons of steel per year, lost 3,000 jobs in 1971 and a further 7,000 in 1975. By the 1980’s, the factory employed fewer than 8,000 workers, a 77 percent decline from its peak employment,” Taylor reported.
His report also stated, “Proportionally, more Black workers were unemployed than White workers — and stayed unemployed longer. The wealth gap and housing discrimination also make things worse for Black manufacturing workers to rebound.”
I remember as a kid growing up in West Baltimore in the 1970’s, several of my neighbors had good paying jobs “down the Point”. Jobs that paid off car notes and mortgages. Jobs that put food on the table, clothes on backs and paid for college educations. Jobs held by proud Black men, who were able to fulfill aspirations that once seemed as high as the heavens for many of these people who grew up during the Great Depression. Many of those men and their families never recovered from the loss of manufacturing jobs in Baltimore.
“So that we don’t lose sight…of the Black working class…I think it’s also going to take a shift in mindset at the top, where we stop viewing the relationship between administrations and executives on the one hand and workers on the other as a zero sum game where only one group can win at the same time,” Taylor said.
“We’ve got to start thinking about how we can make life better for the workers, so that life can be better for the people at the top as well. Like, when workers are happy, everybody is happy,” he added.
Yet, there is growing optimism in some sectors about the re-invigoration of manufacturing, through the crafting of 21st century manufacturing hubs fueled by emerging industries (energy and recycling among others) in regions throughout the country and the refurbishing of America’s crumbling infrastructure. Yet, the often tenuous (at best) relationship between owners and workers has been the eternal dilemma.
“I think that along with these efforts to improve our economic growth and performance, this has to come along with a kind of rethinking of the value of the worker in the economy. Their not just droplets in the ocean of productivity…these are people with livelihoods, who need to make their ends meet,” Taylor said.
“So, I think that if the people at the top can respect that fact, like really respect that fact and think about what it means, and let that inform their decisions, then all of this economic growth can really begin to be shared from the top to the bottom.”
Sean Yoes is a senior contributor for the AFRO and host and executive producer of AFRO First Edition, which airs Monday through Friday, 5-7 pm on WEAA 88.9