Williams: Let’s reconsider James Robertson’s plight

Dennis Williams

The national outpouring of support for James Robertson is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. James Robertson is the Detroiter who had been walking 21 miles each day to his job making auto parts.

It’s heartwarming because it shows real care and concern by some about the plight of working people. Across the country, thousands have been moved to express their admiration and compassion for his dogged determination to get to work, never missing a day in 10 years.

It’s also heartbreaking. At $10.55 an hour, he could not make enough to afford a used car.

We salute James Robertson and others like him for not giving up. But we must ask ourselves deeper questions.

How is it possible that a person can work so hard, for so long, with such commitment and have such a low-paying job? Manufacturing jobs used to be considered “good jobs,” meaning they supported a decent standard of living. But according to the National Employment Law Project, real wages for manufacturing working people declined 4.4 percent from 2003-13. What does that say about how artificially low wages really are?

What about our commitment to public transportation? How is it possible that there is no inexpensive public transportation to connect people from the inner city who want to work with jobs in the suburbs? It’s easy to criticize people who are not working, or those who are considered the working poor. The plight of James Robertson highlights the challenges that they might face in getting a job or keeping one.

Inequality in our world, our country and in Metro Detroit is worse now than at any time since the Great Depression. The 1 percent of the wealthiest people in the United States own wealth equal to almost 50 percent of our population. It is an unsustainable situation. Unemployment is approaching 50 percent for young people in our cities. More than 100,000 people in Detroit face tax foreclosures, tens of thousands have seen their water shut off, and heat and light are turned off on those unable to pay during this brutal winter. In Metro Detroit, the people who want to work have real difficulty getting to where the jobs are located.

Generosity and compassion for James Robertson is admirable, but it also requires confronting the inequalities that surround the lives of the majority of the people in our region. It means recognizing that we cannot create a future based on feeling good about how we help one person while damning whole generations to poverty and pain.

James Robertson is a reminder that the human spirit flourishes when our lives have dignity and purpose.

When people have access to jobs and dignity, all boats rise in our economy. It is time to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live productive, supported, compassionate and joyful lives. It is time to change not only individual relationships, but government policies that prevent honest and hard-working people from fulfilling their potential. A good place to start is to insist on access to transportation and a living wage for all.

Dennis Williams is president of the UAW.

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