By Peter Zschiesche
For those of us in California, the older industrial belt of the Midwest including Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania, is a world away from us regarding immigration issues. Our state is doing what it can to protect its immigrants from attacks from the Trump administration. But if we want good national immigration reform anytime soon, what happens in upcoming election cycles in the Midwest is very important.
The Republican Party has bought the Trump base with its anti-immigrant, nativist politics that only grow more rabid by the day. The only path to improve national immigration laws in the near future is through the Democratic Party winning back the Congress in 2018 or 2020 on a platform of inclusion.
While President Trump was elected by a majority of white voters in every popular category, it was the white “swing” voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, who had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, that were a surprising part of Trump’s narrow margin of victory in those states last year.
What’s going on back there to make this happen?
For one thing, their manufacturing base has been eaten away more and more during recent decades. The mostly white small towns and cities that were home to so many manufacturers are now in many cases mere skeletons of their former “middle class” blue and white collar communities. The causes vary. Many local factories moved out of the U.S., either to Mexico or China or elsewhere to take advantage of much lower wages, fewer environmental regulations, and other advantages offered by those countries. It was profits over community.
On the other hand, there are also many instances where healthy manufacturing companies were bought by U.S. private equity firms (like Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital and many others) that set up financial schemes to drain the assets of these companies at the expense of the workers and their communities. Weakened or broken companies made for weakened or broken communities that no longer experience the “social contract” that gave everyone a stake in local well-being. These financial schemes are complex and defy simple words of explanation.
To help us understand these schemes, local author Brian Alexander studied how it worked in his hometown of Lancaster, Ohio, with its stable glass industry. Lancaster is like so many places in those nearby states that have suffered and now voted for Trump. Alexander tells its story in his recent book “Glass House.” You can read the gritty stories of the opioid epidemic among locals who in years past would be making a “decent living” in the healthy commerce of Lancaster. The tougher read is his accounting of the many financial manipulations that continue to this day, and how mysterious they remain to the workers and townspeople of Lancaster.
However complicated private equity takeovers are, they prey on certain sized firms in these towns and cities where local industrial economies are vulnerable and then fail their workers and local residents in the process.
Why do these financial manipulations remain so mysterious to local residents? “Glass House” does not address this question directly, but it seems as if Lancaster’s small town, pro-business, mainly Republican establishment did nothing to enlighten locals, but rather cheered on and helped subsidize each new equity owner as it used to booster local school sports. There seemed to be no critical examination of the succession of private equity owners’ doings until Alexander’s.
We now know from the Trump campaign and election that too many people bought into the ugly anti-immigrant and foreigner mongering that was unequaled in modern U.S. politics. He and they blamed their economic woes on our immigrant workers and foreign competition from bad trade deals. This is a nativist headwind that we proponents of an inclusive immigration policy need to understand and overcome in order to get good national immigration reform. We will need to either figure out how to change some hearts and minds or else activate a whole new set of voters there… or both! Good people need a different set of voices to listen to.
Meanwhile, much farther east in Rutland, Vermont, the Rutland Daily Herald ran an editorial last summer that addressed these same kinds of economic misfortunes. Vermont shares many of the characteristics of those Midwest areas — mostly white and rural, but it is not conservative. At the same time, the Rutland area of Vermont is also not big “Bernie” country.
The editorial began by observing that “reporting from around the country reveals a story that is repeated again and again and is familiar to Vermonters struggling to keep up…. Economic inequality in America is not just a matter of the varying income levels of individual workers. It is about the flight of jobs from whole swaths of the nation, especially the small cities and towns that we think of as Middle America.”
The Rutland, Vermont, editorial goes on to describe the loss of manufacturing jobs and local retail jobs that together can anchor these small towns and cities as viable communities. It then observes that “as ownership of factories and retail businesses fell into the hands of distant corporate entities, small-town America has had to struggle, not just to remain prosperous but to retain its identity. “ But how did ownership “fall into the hands” of distant corporations? That is the story that “Glass House” explains for the glass industry in Lancaster, Ohio.
The editorial concludes that:
“Unfettered capitalism follows a logic all its own. When return on investment is the paramount value, a locally owned factory facing stiff competition may find it has no choice but to sell out to a distant owner. Maybe it’s an investment firm (private equity types) whose quest for profit demands layoffs, consolidation, plant closings, lower wages, and fewer benefits. It has happened all across America. The result is that people feel they don’t have ownership of their communities anymore. They are serfs of big money.”
This is not some radical professor or Occupy activist writing in the Rutland Daily Herald. No, this is a voice in that “middle America” giving local residents a critical vision of what’s happening to them and where to look for the culprits — and it is not over some Wall or in some mosque.
Are there similar editorials being written and published in other local newspapers where middle America resides and suffers this kind of economic decline imposed by the various corporate formations known best on Wall Street? Is there some critical thinking and talking going on? If so, are there opportunities there for our immigrant brothers and sisters to tell their stories in the same kind of human terms that we hear from folks there about their economic plight?
After all, many immigrants come here to escape similar hardships in their mother countries. There is certainly the opportunity for mutual empathy and support. As one example, Rutland, Vermont, voted to sponsor about 80 Syrian refugee families in late 2015 as a way to sustain their local schools and economy. Their community’s vision of economic recovery does not feature scapegoating immigrants, but rather including them in local social and economic life.
But as this Rutland Daily Herald editorial shows us, empathy for immigrants is not enough. There needs to be more accurate explanations for local residents in those impacted towns and small cities as to what is happening to them, including the “unfettered capitalism” of Wall Street and private equity takeovers. “Glass House” is that kind of effort, and hopefully it is being read out there in the Midwest.
San Diego readers can find Anderson’s “Glass House” at the local bookstore in his South Park neighborhood, The Book Catapult, where he talked about Lancaster’s experience at a book signing earlier this year.
Peter Zschiesche is a former Machinist Union Business Agent and President of IAM Local 389. Over the past 30 years he has worked with the last 5 leaders of the San Diego Labor Council and served on its Executive Boards with 3 of them. He founded the Employee Rights Center in 1999, retired from there, and remains active on its governing body, Labor’s Alliance. He also serves as a Trustee of the Board for the San Diego Community College Board since 2002.