Tag Archives: Deindustrialization

The Crisis of Labour: Class Politics in Scotland After the Independence Referendum

As we saw in the Scottish Independence Referendum on September 19, deindustrialization still affects political loyalties in Scotland. Social class influenced the way many people voted, and this has major implications for the future politics of Scotland and the UK. Although 55% voted to remain within the UK, the campaign for independence, Yes Scotland, won 45% and carried several areas that continue to feel the effects of deindustrialization (exacerbated by UK government austerity measures) particularly acutely — the largest city, Glasgow, the populous areas of North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire in the west of Scotland, and the city of Dundee in the east. In North Ayrshire and Inverclyde, the results were within in a hair’s breadth between the two sides. These former industrial heartlands are also the constituencies that gave the Labour Party dominance in Scotland. As historian Chris Harvie observed in 1998: “It is this unknown Scotland, not in the guidebooks, away from the motorway, seen fleetingly from the express that holds the key to the modern politics of the country.”

All of the parties in Scotland – unionist and secessionist alike – deployed deindustrialization as a key motif in the Independence Referendum. In earlier UK and Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2010 and 2011 respectively, both the Conservatives and Labour held rallies at the site of the former British Steel strip mill at Ravenscraig, a significant national site of memory. Gordon Brown, the former UK Labour Prime Minister, signaled the importance of old industrial Scotland as a key battleground when he chose Loanhead miners’ club outside Edinburgh to launch his defense of the UK and to promise more powers for the Scottish Parliament. Brown received a warmer reception than his successor as leader of the Party, Ed Miliband, when the latter visited the former mining village of Blantyre, the birthplace of one of the founders of the Labour Party, James Keir Hardie. It has an added significance for the labor movement as the site of one of Scotland’s most legendary mining disasters. “Labour Tories,” quipped one resident, while another remarked,

We’re all ex-Labour supporters – but now they’re just Tories in red ties. Mr Miliband’s come up today to a place he doesn’t even know – he probably couldn’t even put a finger on a map of where it is. He told us two months ago he’d come up to Scotland and spend the last six weeks living here. But they never even told us he was coming to Blantyre today.

Such comments reflected the growing disaffection of Labour voters in Scotland. The scale of the potential crisis confronting the Party in Scotland is illustrated by the fact that 40 of the 59 Scottish MPs at Westminster sit on the Labour benches; loss of these seats could scupper any chance of Labour maintaining a UK majority. The Party is belatedly stirring to this threat. Eric Joyce, the Labour MP for another former industrial town, recently observed, “Unless dramatic measures are taken, and fast, Labour will continue to be punished for the strategic error of neglecting its machinery in Scotland and for taking voters for granted.”

What has prompted this crisis for Labour in Scotland, a country in which it has held a majority since 1945? In Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, the Party lost long-term members frustrated by Blair’s involvement in the Iraq War, privatization of public services, and the financial crisis. Added to this, Labour stood with the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties as part of the No campaign and supported the UK coalition’s austerity measures and attacks on welfare that further impoverish low income families, disproportionately located in these former industrial heartlands.

In contrast, Yes Scotland – which involved the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Scottish Greens, and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), as well as a host of other radical platforms – mounted an explicitly broad based left-leaning campaign, placing social justice at the core of an independent Scotland, protecting the public sector and National Health Service from privatization, expelling the UK’s Trident armed submarine fleet from its base in Scotland, and having an independent foreign policy.

However, Labour’s problems in Scotland also stem from the legacy of deindustrialization in Scotland and the associated shift in political loyalties in these former industrial heartlands. As Jim Phillips and I have argued elsewhere, deindustrialized communities, such as in the coalfields, continue to be plagued by the social legacy of the closures. Deindustrialization and its impacts over time have exercised a profound effect on the shifting working-class political loyalties in Scotland from the late 1960s onwards. Labour has subsequently, and hurriedly, assembled a plan to support development initiatives to regenerate former industrial areas. It is recognizing too late that the heartlands can no longer see a promised land in Labour pledges. As the late Marxist historian Eric Hosbawm observed in 1978:

… If the labour and socialist movement is to recover its soul, its dynamism, and its historical initiative, we, as marxists, must … recognise the novel situation in which we find ourselves, to analyse it realistically and concretely, to analyse the reasons, historical and otherwise, for the failures as well as the successes of the labour movement, and to formulate not only what we would want to do, but what can be done. We should have done this even while we were waiting for British capitalism to enter its period of dramatic crisis.

The thousands of working-class voters who engaged in grassroots debates during the Scottish referendum, and the broad left, have recognized the potential for greater democracy and empowering communities against global capitalism. The Labour Party has not. As a result working-class voters have deserted the Party in droves for the prospect of a more socially equitable society wedded to traditional “Labourist” values. As the Scottish socialist, and one of the leaders of the Upper Clydeside Shipbuilders (UCS) work-in in 1971-2, Jimmy Reid famously observed when opting to support the SNP in 2008, “It wasn’t so much that I left Labour. I felt that they left me.” Reid died in 2010, but seven of his fellow leaders from the UCS work-in came out in support of Scottish independence. That says much about where working-class political loyalties now lie in Scotland. While these concerns are surely shared by many voters in England, the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament (unlike Westminster) has facilitated greater representation for the Scottish Greens and the SSP, alongside the SNP.

In the days since the result – with the unionist parties of the Conservatives and Labour reneging on their vow of new powers – there has been a flood of former Labour voters to pro-independence parties; within 24 hours of the result, the SNP, the Scottish Greens, and the SSP, respectively saw 5000, 2000, and 1000 new members join up. Within a week, the SNP added over 39,000 new members, and Scottish Green membership rose by 375% on 2013. Amongst those deserting the Labour Party will also be a section who voted No in the referendum based on the assurances given them by the Party leadership that the Scottish Parliament would be given more power to promote social justice and protect public services. A Yes Alliance of the SNP, Scottish Greens and SSP now plan to vote tactically at the UK, and Scottish Parliamentary, elections in 2015 and 2016, to oust unionist party candidates standing for seats in Scotland. Already pollsters are speculating that Labour could lose more than half of their Scottish seats to the SNP in next year’s General Election.

Scottish working-class voters increasingly see their future lying within a separate state and with alternative parties who share essentially “Labourist” values, which the Labour Party has long since abandoned. We may well be witnessing the not so strange death of Labour Scotland.

Andrew Perchard

Andrew Perchard teaches history at the University of Strathclyde and is a member of Academics for Yes.

Out of a Different Furnace

When I first saw a print ad for Scott Cooper’s latest film, Out of the Furnace, I was excited that someone had made a film of Thomas Bell’s 1942 novel, Out of This Furnace.  While the film, set in Braddock, focused on a local steelworker, and written by Cooper and Brad Inglesby, has much in common with the novel, the differences reflect not just different historical moments but also different ideas about working-class life.

Cooper claims that he didn’t know about the novel when he came up with the title for the film.  Once he learned about it, he kept his title despite the possibility of confusion, because, he explains, both the community and Christian Bale’s character “come out of the furnace.” Other than the usual images of decaying buildings and abandoned plants that have become iconic in documentaries and fictional films set in deindustrialized places, we see little explicit evidence of how Braddock has been shaped by the rise and decline steelmaking.  Bale’s character, Russell Baze, is represented as embodying the positive values fostered in working-class communities.  He “comes out of the furnace” with a firm commitment to family and an inner strength that serves as the film’s load-bearing beam. But in the novel, what emerges from the furnace is not just tough individuals or a strong sense of community, but something far more important: a union.

The pivotal moment in the film, when its narrative shifts from tracing the slow decline in the lives of two working-class white men in a declining steel town into a tale of revenge, is a fairly quiet scene at the police station, when Police Chief Wesley Barnes (Forrest Whitaker) explains the challenges that he and New Jersey police face in tracking down the menacing Appalachian drug boss Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Barnes doesn’t have jurisdiction, and in rural western New Jersey, there’s a long history of suspicion of and resistance to law enforcement.  Regardless of whether this claim is realistic, the explanation highlights the limited power of institutions. Working-class men are, the film seems to suggest, on their own, and the last third of the film follows Russell and his uncle Red (Sam Shepard) as they pursue DeGroat on their own.  Once they track him down, law enforcement steps in, only to reveal its inadequacy again.  As DEA agents in full gear march toward the now-abandoned drug house, DeGroat is shooting up somewhere else.  In the end, Russell insists on doing the job himself, luring DeGroat to Braddock, tracking him through an abandoned mill, and finally shooting him with a deer hunting rifle.

Law enforcement isn’t the only institution that doesn’t work in this film. Corporations care only about getting cheaper steel, while the U.S. Army ignores both the economic and emotional needs of soldiers like Rodney, and unions are not even mentioned.  The only institution that works at all is the local bar, and even there, the only help available is corrupt and ineffective. The bar owner’s loans support Rodney’s gambling, and the fights he arranges accomplish nothing except getting himself and Rodney killed, which sets up the revenge plot at the end of the film.  The idea that institutions are ineffective in supporting working-class people is not new.  As John Russo and I argued in writing about local responses to deindustrialization a decade ago, that explains why working-class people don’t trust institutions. Jennifer Silva finds a similar attitude in her recent study of young working-class people, and a recent entry in the New York Times’s series on inequality, Joseph E. Stiglitz notes that people have lost “faith in a system that seems inexorably stacked against them.”

In a way, of course, that do-it-yourself attitude reflects working-class culture.  Psychologist David Greene highlighted the centrality of self-reliance in an essay on the “matrix” of working-class identity: “Whatever one needed, whatever the situation or task called for, you could make do. . . . If you needed it or wanted it, it was up to you to find it, fix it or build it.”  Cooper makes a point of this in a scene where Russell engages some low-level drug dealers by way of an admiring conversation about their restoration of a classic car. That self-reliance is also central to Russell’s character. Early on, when he learns that his brother owes money to the bar owner, Russell steps in to pay off Rodney’s debt.  We also see it when Russell is released from prison after a manslaughter conviction; one of his first acts is fixing up the house he and his brother have inherited from their father.

We’re a long way from Out of This Furnace, which celebrates not only the resilience and family commitments of steelworkers but also the potential power of collectivityAfter describing how steelworkers and their families survived poverty, mill accidents, and illness through internal strength and mutual support, Bell ends his novel with the formation of the Steelworkers Organizing Collaborative in the late 30s.  Writing in 1942, he couldn’t have known how much unions would improve the lives of steelworkers, nor could he have predicted the demise of the industry or the union’s inability, ultimately, to protect workers and their communities, like Braddock, from the ravages of deindustrialization.  By the time Cooper conjures up the story of the Baze brothers, not only is the local mill about to close but the union is so irrelevant that it is never mentioned.

Both Bell and Cooper recognize the commitment to family and the strength of character that might emerge from economic struggle and hard work. Both recognized that working-class people can’t count on employers to look out for them.  But Bell believed that workers and their communities could protect themselves by standing together, while Cooper suggests that self-reliance is the only option, even if it isn’t a good one.

Out of the Furnace is not a great movie, and reviewers have noted a variety of flaws, including its reliance on working-class stereotypes and the emphasis on violence and revenge.  But it’s worth watching, especially alongside a reading of Out of This Furnace. 

If we read the film in light of Bell’s romanticized vision of working-class collectivity, we recognize that what has been lost is not just jobs and opportunity but the basis for hope.  If we read the novel with the film, we might be reminded that the only real hope lies in people working together to stand up for the right to a decent life.

Sherry Linkon

Thatcher and the Working Class: Why History Matters

A kind of class war has broken out on the streets of the UK over the last week or so since the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Since her death was announced, the media has been full of people either paying tribute to her for ‘saving the country’ or condemning her for reigning over unprecedented deindustrialisation. Among these sound bites, the one that has become a constant refrain from those on the right has been that she ‘saved us from the unions.’ One particularly depressing manifestation of this was on a TV political panel show when young male audience member – he looked about 16 – said ‘well, imagine where we would be if we still had the unions.’ I can’t be certain, but given his accent – still one of the best ways in the UK to tell someone’s social origins – he was almost certainly working-class himself.  I started to think, yes, just imagine if we did have a stronger union moment . . . but maybe that’s for another blog.

Essentially what has been occurring here over the last week or so is a rewriting of history by the right – one where class is never far from the surface. Britain of the 1970s was portrayed as industrially backward with a terminal industrial relations problem. The right argue that the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 turned back this economic and social decline and created a brave new world.

Britain in the 1970s was, however, a complex place, not one dimensional as it’s being portrayed by the right. Although far from perfect, Britain was in this period a far more egalitarian society, in part due to near full employment, of course, but also because of a collective sense of fairness shared by both political left and right.  This is encapsulated for me in British media writer Andrew Collins’s memoir of the period Where did it all go right? Growing up normal in the 70s’.  Collins spent his youth in the English midlands, and while he was undoubtedly middle class, he wasn’t that different socially, culturally, or economically from his working-class peers. They would have attended the same schools, lived on the same streets or at least nearby, and so on. In part because of the kind of egalitarianism that Collins describes, 1976 was recently identified as the year when the British people were statistically about as equal as they had ever been – and possibly ever will be. They were also the happiest. After this period, the post-war consensus began to be eroded most notably by Thatcherism, as director Ken Loach has recently shown in a moving and thoughtful film on the social and economic reforms of the post-war Labour Government and the later breakdown of the consensus.

While the Tories were elected in part because they tapped into worries about unemployment, by using an image of a long dole queue with the tag line ‘Labour isn’t working,’ instead of ending unemployment, they drove it up.  Almost one million people were unemployed in 1979, but that rose rapidly in the early 1980s to 3 million and has never since fallen below one million.  And who has experienced the most job loss since from the 1980s onward? Yes, you guessed it: the working class, who lost jobs in coal mines, factories, shipyards, and steel mills.  These industries were closed as a result of either disastrous neo-liberal industrial policies, or, as was the case with the coal industry, simple political spite.  But the right wants us to remember Thatcher for ‘saving us from the unions.’

As I watched the state funeral for Mrs. Thatcher on TV, the BBC’s helpful live internet feed of the tickertape scrolling at the bottom of the screen highlighted the latest labor market statistics:  a 70,000 increase in joblessness this month and over 900,000 unemployed for over a year out of a total of 2.5 million. It was a fitting reminder of Thatcher’s gift to the working class.

But the right wing commentators have not been the only ones talking about Thatcher over the last week.  Many on the left have celebrated her death, though much of the opposition has been dismissed in some quarters as either left wing political extremism or simply distasteful. The tee-shirt maker Philosophy Football produced a souvenir shirt with ‘Rejoice – 08.04.2013’ emblazoned on the front and urged would be purchasers to order quickly to ensure deliver in time for the day of the funeral. Others celebrated musically, organizing an attempt to place the song ‘Ding Dong The Witch is Dead’ at number one in the download charts.  It narrowly missed climbing to number two! Impromptu street parties broke out in the centres of a number of British cities. In the Celtic fringes of the UK, Scotland and Wales especially, there has been a great deal of celebration at the news.  But nowhere has the bitter, visceral hatred of Thatcher and her governments of the 1980s been more pronounced than in the former coal mining villages of the North of England. While 3000 of the great and good of the British establishment were attending the lavish £10 million funeral service in St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London, the places decimated by Thatcherism celebrated in a different style. In former colliery villages such as Easington in County Durham and Goldthorpe in South Yorkshire, effigies of the former Prime Minister were burnt with gusto.

The industrial and social changes that Britain suffered during the 1980s have left a lasting legacy that continues to impact the nation 23 years after she left office. Above all it is working-class communities that have paid the price of Thatcherism.  The true story of Thatcher’s influence, in the 70s and beyond, must be heard.  As one banner in the City of London proclaimed on the day of Thatcher’s funeral, ‘Rest in Shame.’

Tim Strangleman

Welcome to the Working Class

As the financial industry celebrates its recovery from the Great Recession with huge bonuses, attention has turned increasingly to jobs.  But that’s not a new concern: over the past three decades first the working class and then the middle class faced unemployment caused by economic restructuring and globalization.  Back in the 70s and 80s, when working-class people were losing thousands of blue collar manufacturing jobs that paid middle-class wages, many economists brushed the problem aside, insisting that new forms of work would soon replace disappearing blue-collar jobs.  Industrial workers and their unions knew better 30 years ago.  They’ve long warned that economic restructuring, globalization, and unfair trade laws would result in the loss of the middle class.  Today we’re learning that they were right.

With the jobless recovery of the early 2000s and the ongoing unemployment crisis of today’s recession, the middle class is discovering that sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb were accurate when they suggested that what it means to be middle class is to be just one job away from poverty.  In Fear of Falling, Barbara Ehrenreich explored the impact of this decline on individual consciousness.  But it is only within the last decade that people who thought they were safely middle class have come to understand the episodic, anxiety-ridden, contingent, low-wage-and-benefit life of many in the working class.

And that experience seems likely to become permanent reality for many.  Unlike in past business cycles, the middle class has not been able to recover so far, despite increases in productivity and stock prices. In “America Without a Middle Class,” Elizabeth Warren documents how the de facto unemployment rate, credit debt, “underwater” mortgages, increased use of food stamps, personal bankruptcies, and the loss of pensions and health care have all dramatically increased.  Middle-class households have depleted their savings and are increasingly accruing debt to pay for college, health care, and other expenses.

The situation continues to worsen.  The latest monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Report shows an additional 85,000 jobs lost. As the U.S. population grows, the need for jobs increases.  The economy would need 100,000 new jobs just to keep up. In other words, the net effect puts us 185,000 jobs behind where we need to be to stay even with current misery.  To make matters worse, 600,000 gave up looking for work and so were not even counted in the official unemployment rate.  Over the last decade, the data shows no net creation of new jobs.

Some experts believe that the decline in jobs will only continue. For example, Alexandra Levit predicts significant losses in a number of key industries between 2008 and 2018:  semiconductor manufacturing(33.7%), motor vehicle parts manufacturing (18.6%), printing and related jobs (16%), apparel manufacturing (57%), newspaper publishers (24,8%), mining support jobs (76,000 or 23,2%), and the postal service (13%). Corporations are moving many of these jobs offshore or replacing them with technology rather than paying middle class wages and benefits. The economists are right that new jobs are being created in place of these.  But as Jack Metzgar discussed last week, most of the new jobs offer even lower wages and benefits and require less education.

Since private sector jobs cannot or will not be replaced in significant numbers, working people will have to rely on government spending to fill the gap.  The first Obama stimulus, while important (see The Stimulus at Work), has clearly proven insufficient. The limits of this approach can be seen in California, Illinois, and New York.  No wonder business leaders like Warren Buffet, economists like Paul Krugman, and others are calling for second stimulus directed more at creating new jobs.

While many approaches have been offered, the Economic Policy Institute has outlined a simple plan to create jobs and stem the unemployment crisis. It contains five major themes: strengthening the social safety net (including unemployment compensation, COBRA health coverage, and nutrition assistance); providing additional fiscal relief to state and local governments; making renewed investments in infrastructure including transportation and schools; supporting direct creation of public service jobs; and establishing a new tax credit to employers who create new jobs.

No doubt, we need stronger government leadership in creating the jobs that will expand the so-called recovery from the financial sector to the jobs sector.  But making real, lasting change requires something more:  a reexamination of the neoliberal ideology that has been responsible for current economic crisis that is moving so many from the middle class to the working class.  As a recent Special Report in The American Prospect suggests, nothing short of an complete overhaul involving industrial, trade, and foreign policy will do, especially involving the revival of American manufacturing.

Why manufacturing? As Richard McCormack has found, the loss of a single manufacturing job in a single large manufacturing plant, such as the GM Moraine Assembly in Dayton, can result in the loss of 15 additional jobs in the local community and through supply chains – job losses that affect both working- and middle-class workers.  But it’s not just that lost manufacturing jobs have wide-ranging effects.  It’s also that manufacturing jobs, unlike the low-wage service jobs Metzgar wrote about last week, are more likely to pay a liveable wage and provide decent benefits.  Manufacturing jobs can be good working-class jobs, working-class jobs that can in turn help rebuild the middle class.

With a new stimulus package and a revitalized manufacturing sector, the Great Recession may – like the Great Depression before – provide the ideological stimulus to create a more humane economy that is supportive of the working class.  We need such a shift now, especially as the working class increasingly includes thousands who once thought they were solidly middle class.

John Russo

Jobs, Ideology, and Policy: Putting Workers First

During the 1980s recession, as steel mills closed and auto plants began downsizing around the country, neoconservative economists insisted that the jobs lost to deindustrialization would soon be replaced by new jobs.  In Youngstown then, we knew better.  And as we wrote seven years ago in Steeltown U.S.A., Youngstown’s story in the late 70s and early 80s has not only persisted here, where unemployment is among the highest in the state and the poverty rate hovers around 30%, but has become America’s story today.

Youngstown learned then how real economic shifts could be exacerbated by ideology: the idea that businesses and investments matter more than ordinary human beings and the notion that we should just get used to economic patterns that create long-term hardship for those with the least power and resources.  Youngstown learned more than 30 years ago how damaging such ideas can be.  Once again, the rest of America is learning that lesson today.

The gap between the Wall Street recovery and the continuing jobs recession was highlighted by Friday’s jobs summit.  Communities around the country understand that we are in another jobless recovery that leaves hundreds of thousands of American families vulnerable.  While markets have stabilized for the moment and investors are feeling more confident, the economy isn’t improving for most Americans.

So is the current situation just like the earlier recession? No. It is worse. As Peter Edelman and Barbara Ehrenreich note in Sunday’s Washington Post, the current economic crisis reveals the glaring problems left behind by the welfare reform of the 1990s, a policy change that reflected the long-standing assumption that poverty is a “voluntary condition” and that every able-bodied adult should simply find a job – “even when there are obviously no jobs available.”  When we removed the safety net because of conservative and neoliberal worries about “fostering dependency,” we created the economic conditions that left 17.1 million Americans living in extreme poverty in 2008 – and no doubt even more today. As we learned last year, we’re willing to bail out corporations but not working people.

The current recession is also worse because it isn’t just a matter of jobs.  It’s a matter of ideology.  Blaming the victim and normalizing long-term economic struggle were part of the discourse at the jobs summit, during which Jan Hatzius, chief domestic economist at Goldman Sachs, acknowledged that unemployment will likely remain high for a long time.  She suggested that we may just have to get used to it.  Why?  Because those who have been unemployed for a long time are losing their skills and their work habits.  No doubt, long-term unemployment affects people, but the idea that unemployment will last a long time because workers won’t be prepared to return to work represents the most absurd, cruel version of blaming the victim.

On the other hand, Hatzius is not wrong that we’re in for long-term unemployment and underemployment– problems which are far worse than the official unemployment rate suggests. No doubt, business takes the cautious path during economic downturns, often by adding hours to workers’ schedules rather than by hiring additional workers. But as we learned in Youngstown, the reality is that those jobs may never come back as businesses, especially manufacturers, continue to disinvest in the United States.

At the same time, as we have argued before, we’re also witnessing long-term shifts in the nature of the jobs available.  Promises about a new “creative worker” economy or green jobs that will someday provide some former steelworkers and autoworkers with new versions of manufacturing jobs fall short when we remember the latest predictions of the Bureau of Labor Statistics:  that the job categories predicted to grow most over the next few decades involve primarily low-wage, low-education service positions.  Many of these jobs pay less than $21,000 a year.  That means that poverty is going to be a long-term problem for American workers.

What we need, in other words, is not a single jobs summit. We need long-range policy planning aimed at creating a better system of supports for the working poor and unemployed.  We need to recognize that as much as education matters, it won’t necessarily overcome long-term employment trends and growing income inequality.  We need economic policies that focus on the poor and working class and that treat them with respect, rather than blame.

Too often, economic theory has provided a distraction from the real struggles of real people.  Jan Hatzuis and her colleagues might do well to stop worrying about the work habits of the unemployed and start learning about what it’s like to lose a job after you spent years doing everything right, about the indignities associated with applying for government aid as you struggle to survive job loss, about how limitations of K-12 education, urban transportation, limited access to fair banking, overcrowded housing, persistent hunger, and lack of health care make finding a steady job that pays enough to support a family incredibly difficult.   A little moral education might help as well.

We need to stop thinking about the current crisis as a temporary recession, and we certainly have to stop talking about the economic crisis as part of an inevitable shift we can’t do anything about.  We have to recognize and act on the situation as what it is: a moral crisis.

The Obama administration must take the problem as a moral imperative, acknowledge that the private sector simply won’t solve the problem on its own, and like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, create a jobs-centered stimulus that is environmentally sound, improves the national infrastructure, and provides an economic foundation for working Americans and rebuilding the American economy.

The economy isn’t a game, with winners and losers who deserve what they get, because the players don’t occupy a fair playing field and the rules are biased.  Inequality has long been and is becoming more deeply engrained in the American system.  We cannot continue to view long-term high unemployment rates, minimal public supports for the poor, and a permanent and increasing gap between rich and poor as normal much less acceptable.  We can do better.  “Yes, we can.”  And we must.

John Russo and Sherry Linkon

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Reclaiming Youngstown’s Story

Two weeks ago, the Center for Working-Class Studies sponsored a panel discussion on reporting on Youngstown and the working class as part of our annual lecture series. The panel featured journalists from the Wall Street Journal, the Plain Dealer, and National Public Radio who had written on community and its working people. Their message to a local audience wondering why Youngstown is so often portrayed in negative terms:  the community must understand and reclaim its identity and must show journalists, business leaders, and legislators the strengths of the Mahoning Valley. Otherwise, others will continue define who and what we are. Over time, the narratives developed by outsiders have become the conventional wisdom in explaining Youngstown’s culture, history, and economic plight.  Unfortunately, conventional wisdom about Youngstown isn’t always accurate, and it has even contributed to the community’s difficulties.

A culture is the accumulated experiences of people. For most of the 20th century, the experiences of the Mahoning Valley were powerful and largely positive. The community grew prosperous both economically and culturally, building on working class values of hard work, family, community, and generational advancement through education. But the memory of that economic and cultural history was disrupted by deindustrialization and, over time, replaced by a negative image constructed, to a great extent, by commentators from the outside the community.  These negative visions of Youngstown described us as the poster child for deindustrialization, a place known more for loss and failure than for productivity and hard work.  Over time, this community became known for its economic desperation, high crime rates, and political corruption.  Many in the local area internalized these images and people have forgotten the cultural strengths that made this community great.

In our book, Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, Sherry Linkon and I argue that the Mahoning Valley has been shaped by conflict, first over work and culture, and more recently over memory itself. As Robert Bellah has suggested, a healthy “community of memory” involves shared understanding of its past, good and bad, is deeply rooted in associations (family, food, religion, place etc), and contributes to the common good, empowers struggle, and is source of enlightenment and understanding.  This community and its working people must remember that a community is not just a conglomeration of buildings and/ or deindustrialized spaces on the landscape.

As Connie Schultz, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Plain Dealer, told local residents at the panel, you have to “take back your town.” That is, local residents need to reconstruct the community’s identity.  They can do this by recovering their cultural and civic values, renewing the relationships among the people who live here, and restoring the spaces, public and private, that offer the possibility of coming together.  This doesn’t meaning hiding the negative features of past behind the term “community.” Rather, Youngstown must embrace both the good and bad in order to move forward and build on its history and memories.

John Russo

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Economic hope for the Mahoning Valley

On August, 21, 2008 General Motors’ CEO Rick Wagoner stood on a makeshift stage in front of a packed audience of Lordstown autoworkers, state and local politicians, and civic leaders from the Mahoning Valley to announce that his troubled global company would invest $350 million to retool the plant for production of the new Cruze line. GM’s announcement represents more than just an infusion of corporate capital in a production line. It is a profound vote of confidence in the future of the Mahoning Valley.

Almost 31 years ago, on September 19, 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s Campbell Works was closed without notice, leaving thousands out of work and beginning to dismantle the country’s third largest steel producing center. For decades, the people of the Valley had boasted of “Thirty Mills in Thirty Miles.”  By the mid-80s, that had became a bitter memory as mill after mill closed.  Ultimately the demise of the steel industry left 50,000 people out of work and devastated the Youngstown area.

Over the next 25 years the city’s population shrunk in half. As laid-off workers left to pursue opportunities elsewhere, foreclosures, abandonment, and tax delinquency ripped through once proud neighborhoods.  Along with manufacturing jobs, families lost their houses, their dignity, and their hope for the future. The Valley’s social service agencies were stretched to the breaking point.  Local governments cut staff dramatically, shut off street lights, and deferred all but the most essential services.  Downtown Youngstown became a stage set of the empty storefronts, roofless commercial buildings, and abandoned lots, used by reporters and politicians to illustrate the impact of deindustrialization in the Great Lakes. The once fierce sprit of the Valley, like the fires of its mills, was extinguished. For many, optimism was replaced by despair, anger, and resignation.

A generation was to pass before the devastation began to reverse. The past 5 years have been a time of profound change.  New leadership has emerged in the Valley’s two major cities-Youngstown and Warren-and in the region’s Congressional and state legislative delegations. New IT companies, focused on “business to business” software applications, are developing at the Youngstown Business Incubator. YSU began construction of a new $34 million Williamson College of Business Administration, and the state chancellor of higher education announced plans to develop a community college in the Mahoning Valley.

Despite the steady progress of the past five years, the Valley’s future has remained uncertain as people await evidence that manufacturing-long the cornerstone of the region’s economy-will once again provide opportunity and prosperity.

GM’s investment marks one of the most significant private sector capital infusions in the Valley in recent decades.  It is also a profoundly important acknowledgement by a global corporation that the Mahoning Valley is back in the game as a place to do business.

Standing shoulder to shoulder that afternoon with hundreds of UAW members and with cars moving on the production line all around us, we heard union reps talk with sober pride about the effort they and their fellow workers had made and the sacrifices they had accepted in the most recent contract negotiations to insure that Lordstown would remain competitive in the cutthroat world of global auto production. Their hardnosed realism was balanced by the enthusiasm with which they and the entire audience greeted the full-scale mockup of the new Cruze-a sleek, stylish global automobile that will go head-to-head with the competition from Honda and Toyota. What I witnessed was a team proud of wining without compromising fundamental values, of producing quality work at a competitive price, and of earning a fair wage and benefit package. It was clear that this investment in the Lordstown plant and in the Mahoning Valley economy was enormously important economically and spiritually both to the Lordstown workforce and to the wider community.

It was no small feat to get GM to add a third shift, to integrate the new workforce-drawn from places as far afield as Shreveport Louisiana-onto the line in record time and to compete for $350 million in scarce corporate capital even as GM closes other factories in the region.  Many of the speakers-from labor and management-stressed with hard won pride the importance of this accomplishment and the fact that this success resulted from collaboration and cooperation within the workforce and between labor and management.  Lordstown’s message might apply both to Northeast Ohio’s manufacturers and their employees: tough, fair, reality-based negotiations combined with a renewed competitive drive and a fierce dedication to producing a quality product can lead to success in the global marketplace.

While GM’s investment will yield tax revenues for state and local governments and create additional new jobs in the region, the most significant outcome is its effect on the heart and soul of the Valley.  As Congressman Tim Ryan told Wagoner,  GM had given the Valley something it hasn’t had for a long time: hope. He predicted that a decade hence people would see August 21, 2008 as “the day the Mahoning Valley turned the corner.”

The GM Lordstown story demonstrates that economic development is not just about making deals and cutting ribbons. It is about giving people back their hope and giving communities back their future.

Hunter Morrison