How Business Leaders Caused Black Poverty
Union busting, opposition to minimum wage helped drive inequality.
The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) 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 the 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 1970’s Milwaukee 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?
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, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute.
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. UWM’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 1990’s.
And let’s not forget that Milwaukee area business leaders like Rich Meeusen 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 1960s levels) for more than a decade and even passed legislation eliminating the right of local government to set living wage standards.
For more than three decades the 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 Douglas, said, “Without struggle, there is no progress.” Father Groppi and the NAACP Commandos successful fight for equal housing legislation demonstrated the power of an organized social movement. More recently the Fight for Fifteen 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 or workers to organize unions and engage in collective bargaining and support increased investments in public and public higher education.