Reviews | What killed the blue collar struggle for social justice
“If you want, fight for it,” he told his union brothers and sisters from their doomed factory. “I will fight with you.”
I began to understand why white workers tended to view the factory shutdown – and the election of Donald Trump – differently from their black colleagues. Over the course of a decade, John had seen his wages drop from $ 28 an hour to $ 25 an hour to $ 23 an hour. After the plant closed, he struggled to find a job paying $ 17 an hour. His drop in income had not been tempered by social progress, such as the election of a black president. On the contrary, his social status had weakened. Wealthy white CEOs sent blue collar jobs to Mexico. But when blue-collar workers complained, college graduates called them xenophobic and racist.
The white working class men in the bearing factory may not have wanted to share their work with blacks and women. But they did. And now that blacks and women were working alongside them in the factory, everyone’s jobs were shifting to Mexico. It was more than many white workers could handle. A white man at the factory quit and gave up over $ 10,000 in severance pay just because he couldn’t stand watching a Mexican learn his job. “It’s depressing to see that you don’t have a future,” he told me. One of John’s best friends volunteered to train. “I don’t hate you, but I hate what you do,” John told him. They never spoke again.
The union representatives, almost all white, viewed the training of their replacements as a moral sin, akin to crossing a picket line. But many black workers and women disagreed. It wasn’t that long, after all, that white men had refused to train them.. Black workers had not forgotten how the union had treated their fathers and uncles. Many viewed the refusal to train Mexicans as racist. The most inexcusable coaches were blacks.
The announcement of the plant closure, the election of Donald Trump and the arrival of Mexican replacements at the plant took place over the span of three months in 2016, sparking a toxic mix of hope, of rage and despair. In the years since, the workers have scattered like brittle seeds, trying to start their lives anew.
Economists predicted they would get new jobs – even better jobs than before. Some have. But most of the workers I followed ended up making about $ 10 less an hour than before. One of them started a bed bug extermination business. Another joined the army. Another sold everything he owned and bought a one-way ticket to the Philippines, determined to make globalization work in his favor for once. Wally made strides in his barbecue business, until an unforeseen tragedy struck. John wondered whether he should go back to being a metalworker or taking a job at a hospital that didn’t have a union. Shannon was unemployed for a long time, which made her miserable. The old factory continued to appear in her dreams for years.
Of course, for every story like Shannon’s, there’s the story of a woman in India, China, or Mexico who has a job now – and more financial independence – thanks to a new factory. Globalization and social justice have many facets.