What Killed the Blue-Collar Struggle for Social Justice
“If you want it, fight for it,” he told his union brothers and sisters of their doomed plant. “I’ll fight with you.”
I began to understand why white workers tended to view the closure of the factory — and the election of Donald Trump — differently from their Black co-workers. Over the course of a decade, John had seen his wages sink from $28 an hour to $25 an hour to $23 an hour. After the plant closed, he struggled to secure a job that paid $17 an hour. His declining earning power hadn’t been tempered by social progress, like the election of a Black president. To the contrary, his social standing had waned. Rich white C.E.O.s sent blue-collar jobs to Mexico. But when blue-collar workers complained about it, college-educated people dismissed them as xenophobes and racists.
Working-class white men at the bearing plant may not have wanted to share their jobs with Black people and women. But they had done it. And now that Black people and women worked alongside them on the factory floor, everyone’s jobs were moving to Mexico. It was more than many white workers could take. One white man at the plant quit and walked away from more than $10,000 in severance pay simply because he couldn’t stand watching a Mexican person learn his job. “It’s depressing to see that you ain’t got a future,” he told me. One of John’s best friends volunteered to train. “I don’t hate you, but I hate what you’re doing,” John told him. They never spoke again.
The union reps, nearly all of whom were white, saw training their replacements as a moral sin, akin to crossing a picket line. But many of the Black workers and women did not agree. It had not been so long ago, after all, that the white men had refused to train them. Black workers had not forgotten how the union had treated their fathers and uncles. Many considered the refusal to train the Mexicans racist. The most unapologetic trainers were Black.
The announcement that the factory would close, the election of Donald Trump and the arrival of Mexican replacements at the plant took place within the span of three months, in 2016, unleashing a toxic mix of hope, rage and despair. In the years that have passed since, the workers scattered like brittle seeds, trying to start their lives over again.
Economists predicted that they’d get new jobs — even better jobs than they’d had before. Some did. But most of the workers I kept track of ended up earning about $10 an hour less than they had been making before. One started a bedbug extermination company. 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 progress with his barbecue business, until an unforeseeable tragedy struck. John agonized over whether to become a steelworker again or take a job in a hospital that had no union. Shannon stayed jobless 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 a story about a woman in India or China or Mexico who has a job now — and more financial independence — because of a new factory. Globalization and social justice have many sides.