Labor Voices: Manufacturing bridges racial divide

Dennis Williams

Abraham Lincoln, paraphrasing a passage from the New Testament, in 1858 famously said “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Lincoln, then a candidate for U.S. Senate, was talking about the issue of slavery and how it would consume the nation. He didn’t expect the union to dissolve, but he did expect the institution of slavery would either end or it would spread throughout the nation. Our nation went through a bitter bloody struggle to ultimately settle the question.

You could draw a parallel with race relations in America today. Incidents in places like Ferguson, Missouri, Cleveland, and in Staten Island, New York, where African-American males have been killed by police officers — and the reactions to it — show how deep the divide is in our house.

Seeing the issue as either lawless African-American males or racist white cops is an easy out and clouds the real reasons for our racial divide. It’s about opportunity. Despite the great advances made in the Civil Rights era, we are still two nations, one black and one white, one with opportunities that — if we’re being honest — the other can only dream about.

Some will say our country is a nation where anything is possible if you are willing to work for it. But we know that’s not true for the majority of African-American children. Their educational opportunities pale to those compared to most white children. Take a look at any urban school district where the population is overwhelmingly minority. You’ll see crumbling buildings, out-of-date textbooks and other indicators of inequity. Instead of investing in public schools, our politicians defunded them and throw money at privately run charter schools. Thus far, that experiment has failed. The continuing educational inequity leaves African-Americans behind when it comes time to land a family-supporting job.

And those decent-paying jobs are few and far in between. The unemployment rate for African-Americans continues to be almost twice the national average. Last month, African-Americans saw an unemployment rate of 11.1 percent while the overall national unemployment rate was 5.8 percent. Not surprisingly, the percent of African-Americans living below the poverty line increased from 24.9 percent in 2005 to 27.2 percent in 2013.

Many jobs available to African-Americans are in manufacturing. But a recent study by the National Employment Law Project shows that:

■ Manufacturing wages now rank in the bottom half of all jobs in the United States. It used to be that manufacturing workers earned a wage significantly higher than the U.S. average. But by 2013 the average factory worker made 7.7 percent below the median wage for all occupations.

■ Today, more than 600,000 manufacturing workers make just $9.60 per hour or less. More than 1.5 million manufacturing workers — one out of every four — makes $11.91 or less. Manufacturing wages are not keeping up with inflation.

These conditions have consequences. Sadly, our elected leaders have chosen not to address the inequities faced by all workers at the lower end of the wage scale. We continue to live in a country where the wealthy receive the advantages, leaving everyone else to point fingers at those who have a different skin color than our own.

Our house is crumbling and we’re fixing the rain spouts instead of the foundation. Let’s address some of the inequities in education and economic opportunities before our house can no longer stand.

Dennis Williams is president of United Auto Workers.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.