The Metropolitan Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce recently acknowledged Milwaukee’s extreme racial inequality and the need to address it. It’s about time.
Several surveys, including a recent one sponsored by MMAC, conclude that Milwaukee is the worst city in the United States for African Americans. Milwaukee’s corporate leadership has responded with a commitment to hire more people of color. Frankly, that’s not nearly enough.
African American poverty and Milwaukee’s extreme segregation are the result of low-wage, anti-union strategies and public policies promoted and supported by the state’s business community over many decades. Unless these are reversed, people of color will continue to get short-changed and the city will continue to be one of the nation’s poorest and most segregated.
In the early 1970s, Milwaukee's black poverty rate was well below the national average. Black family income was well above it. In large part this was because Milwaukee’s African American workers labored in highly unionized sectors of the economy. What happened?
Instead of investing in innovation, profitable, iconic Milwaukee-based firms like Briggs and Stratton, A.O. Smith, Master Lock, Allen Bradley and Badger Meter pursued a low-road strategy. They abandoned and attacked their unionized workforces, moving production to low-wage, non-union states or even out of the country to Mexico and China. Some like the Amalgamated Meatpackers Association actually broke their unions. Others like Patrick Cudahy, Briggs and Master Lock forced bitter strikes in an effort to slash wages and benefits. And it wasn’t just in manufacturing. Entire sectors of the economy that were unionized, like grocery stores and residential construction, became non-union and low-wage.
But that’s not all. These very firms and their CEOs, like Bucyrus Erie’s Tim Sullivan, promoted free trade agreements like NAFTA that encouraged and protected capital mobility, but did not provide any protection for labor or the environment. They lobbied for favored nation status for China. As a consequence, between its passage in 2001 until 2013, Wisconsin lost 56,938 jobs to China.
Milwaukee’s companies were not following a global trend of busting unions and slashing wages. They were leading it. While companies in many developed countries like Germany located some production abroad, they continued to respect their domestic workforce’s unions and kept wages high. As a result, the United States has among the lowest union density in the world.
Since, “the last hired are the first fired,” Milwaukee’s black workers, who were disproportionately employed in manufacturing, were devastated by this corporate divestment. UW-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development was not exaggerating when it reported that Milwaukee’s black community was experiencing a ”stealth depression.” Badger Meter’s CEO, James Forbes, recognized it when he said, “We (corporate Milwaukee) are responsible for the city’s problems (black poverty and the black white employment gap)” in explaining his participation in Sustainable Milwaukee in the early 1990s.
And let’s not forget that Milwaukee-area business leaders like Richard Mueesen successfully lobbied for Wisconsin to become a right-to-work state, that has further contributed to our wage stagnation. They also financed politicians like Scott Walker and Robin Vos, who have refused to raise Wisconsin’s minimum wage (currently at inflation-adjusted federal rate 1950s levels) for more than a decade and even passed legislation eliminating the right of local government to set living wage standards.
As a result, Wisconsin workers went from being unionized at rates well above the national average, to now nearly 20% below the national average. Under these "reforms," Milwaukee’s black poverty rate soared and black family income fell to almost 30% below the national average.
For more than three decades, MMAC and its corporate leadership pursued right-wing activist Grover Norquist’s dictum to “shrink (government) down so we can drown it in a bathtub.” They lobbied for reductions in corporate tax and state income tax rates. As revenue declined, they demanded that state and local governments — which employ higher percentages of black workers than the private sector — slash employment, forcing cuts in necessary social investments in infrastructure and public education. And, of course, rather than investing in the Milwaukee Public Schools, the system that educates the state’s largest number of black children, they promoted privatization efforts through voucher schools.
The area’s business leaders have also pursued a number of highly publicized, but largely unsuccessful, initiatives they claimed would address black joblessness and underemployment. The Grand Avenue Mall’s festive marketplace, the Convention Center, the short-lived Initiative for a Competitive Milwaukee, and most recently the Foxconn debacle are just a few of these elite-driven projects. None have effectively addressed the damage done by the business community’s pursuit of low-wage, anti-union strategies.
History demonstrates that real social change is never the result of the benevolent actions of the corporate elite. Rather, progress is the result of social movements. As escaped slave and abolitionist leader Fredrick Douglass said, “Without struggle, there is no progress.” Father James Groppi and the NAACP Commandos' successful fight for equal housing legislation demonstrated the power of an organized social movement. More recently, the Fight for $15, led by fast food workers, has led to real change.
If Milwaukee’s corporate leadership is sincere in wanting to address the city’s segregation and African American poverty, it needs to support the Fight for $15 living wage movement, recognize the right for workers to organize unions and engage in collective bargaining and support increased investments in public and public higher education.
Michael Rosen is a retired professor of economics at Milwaukee Area Technical College and retired head of their faculty union AFT Local 212.
Jeffrey Sommers is professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and senior fellow at its Institute of World Affairs. He also is visiting professor at Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. His views are his own and do not represent UW-Milwaukee's.
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