The week before the Michigan primary, I drove to a Kroger grocery store located in the Appleseed Shopping Center on the southwest side of my hometown — Mansfield, Ohio. Historically, this side of town has been more affluent than the old downtown and industrial areas. So I was a little shocked at the amount of vacant spaces that I passed as I approached the grocery store. When I worked at the local music store in the center in the early-2000s, it had more than fifteen stores. Now the center is mostly empty. The city’s jobs exodus continues despite President Obama’s and Governor John Kaisch’s declarations of the recession’s end and lower unemployment rates. The only question I thought of while driving through the plaza was, “What recovery?”
I have grown jaded with the electoral political process since Barack Obama’s election in 2008. (I voted for Obama twice.) I was not excited for any of the presidential candidates, not even Senator Bernie Sanders. While I identify with much of Sanders’s views on income inequality, health care, and climate change, I remained skeptical of his views on race. As a racial justice organizer, I found his initial response to Black Lives Matter protests clumsy. Still, I voted for Sanders in the Michigan primary. I did not vote for him because I thought he would usher in a political revolution. I voted for him because his views on the destructiveness of trade policies and corporate decision-making have never been abstract for me. I grew up in the shadow of industrial ruin in Mansfield, Ohio. I voted for him as an Ohioan whose hometown suffered from the economic violence of deindustrialization.
I was not born in Ohio, nor in the Midwest. However, I consider myself very much an Ohioan. I lived most of my life in the state. I spent my formative teenage and adult years living in Mansfield. Most importantly, much of my family grew up and worked in Mansfield.
Before the 1970s, Mansfield featured a robust, and rather diverse, industrial economy. Several major manufacturers including Mansfield Tire and Rubber Company, Westinghouse, AK Steel, and General Motors built plants in the city. In Mansfield, a path toward social mobility was paved for laborers who worked in the factories. As late as the 1960s, applying for a “good job” was rite of passage for young men, especially for African American men.
My grandfather worked for Taylor Metal Products, Mansfield Tire and Rubber Company and the Ohio Brass Company. The Ohio Brass Company closed in 1990. My father and uncle also worked at Mansfield Tire and Rubber before the plant closed in 1978. My aunt worked at the Mansfield-Ontario General Motors (GM) plant before it closed in 2009. My mother worked for the Wooster area Frito Lay, Inc. and Sarca Manufacturing Division in Mansfield. In the summer between my first and second years of college, I worked as a manual laborer at Smurfit-Stone Container. Smurfit-Stone closed in 2009. Over time I realized growing up as a young black man in a working class family informed my career choices. I decided to go to college and graduate school to study U.S. history. Now I write about those who worked in factories and those who resisted plant shutdowns in the Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s.
So I can relate when Sanders talks about the negative impact of free trade policy and corporate decision-making on workers and communities. As the country reported its first trade deficit in 1971, Mansfield began to lose its heavy industrial base. Dominion Electric left that year, initiating a forty year exodus of manufacturers from the city. According to historian Christopher Phelps, the city lost at least twelve large manufacturers including Mansfield Tire, Westinghouse, Crane Plumbing, and GM. Obviously, Mansfield was not exceptional. Youngstown lost tens of thousands of jobs in the steel industry during the 1970s and 1980s due to foreign imports and corporate mergers.
The trend of manufacturing job loss in Ohio, as well as the rest of the U.S., has continued into the 21st century. According to economist Veronica Kalich, the state lost 31% of its manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2015. The Economic Policy Institute also released a controversial report stating that Ohio lost over 112,000 jobs in 2015 due to trade deficits with countries comprising the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is why, even though we Ohioans do not agree on all political matters, the question — “Will the jobs come back?” — is an important one.
Factory shutdowns in Mansfield had a ripple effect as they caused downtown businesses to close and decimated shopping centers. Deindustrialization further contributed to wage stagnation and decline. Median income in Mansfield has dropped almost 13 percent between 2005 and 2014. The city’s median household income is more than $7,000 less than the state median and a little more than $12,000 less than the national figure. If one were to drive on the north side of town, around the area where the old Westinghouse plant was located, one would notice open lots and abandoned homes. My grandmother lived on Springmill Street before she passed away in 2012. Her old home remains vacant.
Not even the 2009 auto bailout was kind to my hometown, despite Senator Hillary Clinton touting it. It is true that the automobile rescue package saved the industry as a whole. Yet, the Mansfield-Ontario plant closed as a result of federally-mandated corporate restructuring. The closing plunged the city deeper into recession. It precipitated a drop in my hometown’s population by 2% between 2010 and 2013 (which is over 3,000 people in a city of less than 50,000). Undoubtedly, the GM closing contributed to the unemployment spike between June 2008 and March 2010. Mansfield was not the only city affected, either. GM closed plants in Michigan, Tennessee, Indiana, Virginia, and New York. Mansfielders were not the only workers left behind in the bargain between the automakers, creditors, and politicians.
Historically, free trade, technological innovations, pro-business labor laws, and some collective bargaining agreements have created a series of Faustian bargains for American workers. In 1950, General Motors and the United Auto Workers (UAW) reached a model agreement that extended wage increases, health care, and pensions to workers in exchange for labor peace. Since the 1940s, corporations were willing to offer lower prices for goods if Americans were willing to ignore the exploitation of workers abroad and at home. Managers were willing to keep plants open in times of corporate restructuring if workers were willing to take pay cuts or accept two-tier wage systems. While labor unions are always legally bound to peace, corporations remain free to break these bargains. And agreements ultimately maintained corporations’ private property rights. Consequently, business always possessed the ultimate weapon against workers — how and where to invest capital.
Senator Sanders is right — the economy is rigged for the wealthy, large financial institutions, and those who own and run factories. Past and current labor law cannot sufficiently address plant closure nor the free trade agreements that enable industrial flight. And when workers lose jobs due to free trade policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), like those who work for the closing Carrier plant in Indianapolis, employers point to competition as the reason for shut downs. And in relying upon desires to remain competitive, corporations pit workers and communities in different regions of the U.S. and different countries against each other. Plant closures are never the fault of the employers, nor the economic system. Politicians and employers will instead point to workers in poorer countries or American workers who are “too greedy” to sacrifice. To make things worse, some workers even blame themselves and each other for job loss.
Plant closings are traumatic events, as the video of the Carrier representative announcing the factory’s shut down illustrates. Factory shutdowns drive down wages and saps communities of income and property taxes needed to maintain basic services such as public education. They cause adjacent businesses to close. The corrosion of the local economy will also drive down residents’ property values. And now, as we have seen with the growth of our prison population, prisons are replacing our factories. Once one sees the destruction of capital flight, it is not an overstatement to say that industrial flight, supported by free trade policies, inflict violence on a community.
To address outsourcing, Secretary Hillary Clinton proposed a “new bargain” between workers, business, and the federal government. This bargain features a “clawback” proposal where the federal government would acquire the ability to eliminate tax relief for firms that move out of the country. The concept and policy is not really bad nor new. However, the question one should ask about Clinton’s “bargain,” no matter how well-intended, is whether or not it is worth it for workers to enter into another compact with employers who are willing to inflict economic violence on our communities and onto workers in Mexico or China?
Senator Sanders is right — we need to enact policies that will reverse the forty year trend of wealth and income flowing to the 1% of earners and corporations. This could only be done if the 1% and corporations pay their fair share of taxes and if workers have a greater say in workplace affairs, and I would add, business’s investment decisions. Corporations should not be allowed to stash profits overseas and a tax on financial transactions should be enacted. Progressive taxes, strong labor unions, and living wages with benefits actually helped create the middle class. Labor law needs reformed to make it easier for workers to join unions, especially in the South. Sanders supports measures that would allow the federal government to encourage other models of development such as worker-owned enterprises such as Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperative. Fair trade policies are needed, not only help American workers, but to protect foreign workers from exploitation. We need a President who is open to, at the very least, renegotiating existing and pending trade agreements.
I did not want to involve myself in the 2016 campaign in other way besides voting. I believe more in the power of community organizers and activists to push for change than I do elected officials. Obviously Senator Sanders is not the perfect candidate. And I will probably always remain skeptical of Sanders’s views on race and racism in this country. Yet, I do not want to take this progressive surge in American politics for granted. Politics is too unpredictable. I am aware of the other critical issues that we must consider such as Supreme Court appointees, reproductive justice, climate change, and racial justice. When it comes to trade, however, Sanders has never wavered in his opposition to NAFTA, CAFTA, and the TPP. Also, I trust that, if elected, Sanders would try to use the bully pulpit and his executive authority to address trade, push for reforms that help labor unions, and rebuild the economy in a manner that does not leave any cities like Mansfield behind. That is why I voted for Sanders. I did it because of where I come from.
Also — the Michigan primary was the first election I have voted in where I actually thought my vote counted since Sanders only won by 2%. Sanders is right — if many people turn out, then a vote for Sanders is not one for mere idealism, or even a protest vote, it is a winning vote.
Austin McCoy is an activist a PhD student at the University of Michigan. He lives in Ann Arbor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.