Overture: A Near-Death of Despair

AP Photo/Eric Gay

Workers load rolls of sheet metal at LMS International in Laredo, Texas. 

We met on a lonely hilltop, where he planned to kill himself.

His factory had shutdown and he couldn’t find another union—or decent-paying job. He wouldn’t take charity when his money ran out. And so, he’d wound up back at the auto-parts plant, earning less than half of what he’d earned before for a job that now paid him by the piece.

We met because I had been tracking for my newspaper, the Detroit Free Press, workers from his factory, which had closed nearly a year before.

He was the last one I reached late one night to go through a routine questionnaire I had developed and I panicked when he told me by phone about killing himself in the morning. He said his mind was made up and he didn’t need to speak to any mental-health folks.

I rushed to see him next morning in his small town miles from Detroit. Standing calmly on the hilltop, he said he wasn’t a weak man. But he had failed his young wife and children and himself. He didn’t see the hard times coming nor did he see now any way out for him. He had a rifle with him.

I decided to talk about the others who had struggled and stumbled, but who were also moving on and doing the best that they could. We talked and talked and he finally said he wanted to live.

That encounter more than three decades ago was the most searing moment of listening to a soul-crushing chorus of heartbreak in the American heartland. Its echoes over the years have led me to believe that there will be no miracle rescue for these wounded souls unless a massive change of mind comes about among the nation’s political leaders and businesses.

And so, I have been baffled by the uproar raised during last year’s elections about the rebellion of disillusioned, downwardly mobile blue-collar workers, and the shock over the surge in deaths among less-educated white men and women in many of the small towns and communities where good-paying jobs have been disappearing.

Wasn’t anyone listening?

It doesn’t seem so.

We weren’t listening in part because there are few people doing the work I once did as a labor writer. Not so long ago I could point to any part of the country and find a labor writer doing the same work that I did at newspapers in Detroit and Chicago. Not today. Labor reporting has traveled from the front pages to the business pages and finally out of the door in most newsrooms.

Don’t take my word. Check your local radio or TV station or the local newspapers. Call up a local journalism school and see if they are teaching any courses that deal with workers’ issues. There are exceptions, of course, but the loss of a broad base of reporting on workers and the issues touching their lives has been devastating.

We weren’t listening because unions have been so overwhelmed by their losses, starting in the 1980s, that they have struggled to find the voice that would capture the public’s attention. Some fed into their problems long ago by failing to speak to workers as a whole, and not just their members. By forgetting the power of the social uplift that cemented unions’ identity decades ago, they became insurance agents with empty meeting halls.

I’ve taught university-level labor history classes for several years and whenever I come across the child of a union member, I always ask what union their parents belong to. Far too often they don’t know the union’s name and think of it only as a place that arranged their folks’ pension and not much else.

With unions more than ever on the run from right-wing foes across the United States, you might wonder who is going to speak up for workers.

Businesses have their lobbyists and organizations. Racial, religious, and gender groups have their public voices. In a democracy, shouldn’t everyone have someone who speaks up for them?

Yes, minimum wages have been boosted across the United States. But the issues are broader and more basic.

Who speaks for the middle-aged father stuck in a low-paying warehouse job, a well-educated refugee who once led a better life? Or how about the adjunct instructor, a single mom with small kids, who pieces together just enough teaching gigs to live?

Who is leading the charge to bring together the millions of “consultants” and “independent contractors” cheated out of their wages by businesses that profit from their work but deny that they’re employees? Who is making sure that the workers at dirt-cheap construction jobs aren’t dumped by their bosses on the sidewalk in front a hospital when they get injured? I once wrote about such a case.

Who is going to make sure there are realistic training programs for workers tossed out of jobs in disappearing industries? Or how about paid sick days, maternity leave, or pensions for millions of white-collar workers who lack these benefits and protections?

I worry about those like the Latino worker in his late fifties I met recently in Chicago, who never thought his giant bakery would lay him and hundreds of others off as it moved jobs to Mexico. He immediately began talking English classes, hoping that it would help his job search. But he was convinced that his good life was over, and he would struggle with jobs paying $9 or $12 an hour. That’s what his friends were finding, he told me recently. His wife cried as he talked.

I don’t see any one out there stepping up with the clout and the trumpet to speak for these and other workers

Do you?

I thought that the voices of these workers had been channeled several years ago into a howl loud enough to make a difference. Yet the Occupy movement fizzled.

Bernie Sanders’s campaign sailed on the fury felt by many traumatized by the nation’s unending economic tsunami and its pervasive economic injustice. Donald Trump played to many of these workers’ passions. But it was a cruel fraud. He and his wealthy cabinet members now seem bound to cripple unions, and to strip away decent wages, benefits, and protections from millions.

Long ago I told myself that this deafness to workers’ issues had become part of the American DNA, and rather than take to the streets, America’s individualist-minded workers would take Pepto-Bismol.  

It was a muscular, middle-aged United Auto Workers union member in Peoria in the mid-1990s who summed this mind-set up for me. The union had just folded its battle after years of strikes against Caterpillar, and was returning to work largely on the terms the company had previously laid down.

It was a warm day and he was alone, cleaning up a strike station where union members had lived in heat and cold for months on end.

What did the dispute mean for you? I asked.

“We were losers from we came back from Vietnam,” I recall him saying gruffly as he was gathering the wood, barrels, and discarded posters. “We were losers when we put up this battle, and now we’ve lost the American dream.”

Click here to read the rest of our series on the White Working Class and the Democrats. 

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