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Deindustrialization and Race in Kansas City

By March 30, 2015No Comments9 min read

IREHR’s Leonard Zeskind gave a talk on “Deindustrialization and Race in Kansas City” to the Phantom’s Equity Series on March 27.  He did so at the behest of the Workers Organizing Committee, which has been organizing fast food workers, and is preparing for an April 15 march and rally. . Below is an edited version of the talk.  It should be noted hat the East Side of Kansas City is predominantly occupied by African Americans.

Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, I worked in heavy industry for about 13 years.  Prior to 1974, I work on manufacturing assembly lines, including at the General Motors Chevy plant in Leeds. There were 4,000 production workers there at that time.  When one whole shift was laid off, back 14 years of seniority, I went to Voc-Tec on Truman Road and learned to be a welder and a steel fitter.  I was a person who built pieces of power plants, bridges, large buildings, ship unloaders, conveyor systems, etc. from blueprints. And I did that until the early 1980s.

Several years back there was a meeting on immigration at a library on the Northeast Side.  It was a good event with robust discussion among neighbors.  At one point a white man in his late 30s stood up and said that he was not opposed to immigrants as people.  But, he said, competition from immigrants was driving down his wages—there was just not that many jobs around. 

I stood up and said that it was not competition from immigrants that was hurting the labor market. But the valley on the edge of the East Side had stopped producing jobs. Armco Steel, which had employed 4,500 was closed and gone. General Motors in Leeds that had 4,000 on the production line was gone. Vendo Vending Machines, where about 400 had worked was gone, as was Butler Manufacturing, with about 300 workers.  They were all gone.  Ten thousand jobs gone.

The young white guy got up and turned to me and said, “I am not talking about those GOOD jobs.  I just want to make $10 an hour painting and plastering.

I felt like crying because the status of working people had hit such a low point.

Now the closing of those plants on the far edge of the East Side had a definite impact on the quality of life on the East Side.  Suddenly we were without jobs.  For the graduates of East High School coming up the choices had shrunk.

The list of manufacturing shops that had closed down in Kansas City could be a bit longer.   Western Electric in Lees Summit closed down a little later.  But poof, it was gone and so were thousands of production jobs.  And in the early 1970s, both Western Electric and the Chevy plant in Leeds were sites of black activism—with black caucuses in the plant.  The Gleaner Combine plant in Independence is gone.  At one point there were 13 different railways lines in our metro area.  Dozens of smaller shops are gone also, including a lamp factory on Locust that is now a U-Haul Rental agency. 

Not all the manufacturing plants in Kansas City have closed down, of course.  And we still have two large auto plants, for example.  But the loss of manufacturing jobs has had a long term and devastating effect.

Jobs produced income for families, and it multiplied as it went around the community.  It also provides a bit of self-pride and self-worth.  And in the case of these industrial jobs, it also socialized you to value cooperation rather competition.  Nobody in those auto plants worked faster or slower than the person next to you.  The assembly line and the division of labor determined your work pace.  And you often saw and lived with your work mates more than you saw your wife and kids.  You read the paper on breaks with them.  You ate with them.  And often you would form chess or checkers clubs or ball clubs with them.  They helped hold you together, and you also aided your friends.

Your co-workers would also train you for the job. The assembly line jobs are often described as unskilled labor.  But do not believe that for a minute.  You needed to be trained, and that training was often when the color bar would pop up.  Sometimes white workers would not train black or Latin workers new to a job.  And they would not become friends and eat and be together.  So the color bar is sometimes very much there between workers.

What I am saying is that there is more to working together than just working.  And when that experience is taken away it disrupts you and it disrupts the community in which you live.

So I will get to a discussion of what happened on the East Side in a minute, but first I have to talk about deindustrialization itself.

Definition of De-industrialization

According to Barry Blustone’s book on deindustrialization, the term means “a widespread systematic disinvestment in the nation’s basic productivity.”  Capital shifted from production to speculation.  And when they started shutting down plants here in Kansas City and the USA, they did not stop looking for a profit.  US Steel divested itself of steel-making plants across the industrial Midwest, and it bought Marathon Oil Company instead.  RCA and General Electric closed plants in the US, and opened them across South America and Asia.  And so on.

One thing I want us to remember, American economic primacy in the world lasted from 1945 to 1971.  We did not become supreme because we were so much smarter or worked so much harder than everyone else.  It was based on the fact that the industrial plants of the developed world had been bombed all to hell during World War Two, and they had to be rebuilt.  And once they were rebuilt, the world economy began to change.  Before deindustrialization began, the wage-price freeze of 1971 was accompanied by unlocking the cement that held an ounce of gold to $35.  Once that relationship was set loose, the American currency was as strong as the American economy in a world market.

By the 1990s, we were out of the post-war economy; out of deindustrialization, and into a new global economy.  Manufacturing plants were setting up the in the global south, and I am glad the people in those countries got to work.  I like to think of what we have today as a trans-national economy.  Capital flitted around the world at the speed of light. 

And we could talk straight until next Tuesday, and still we still could not get to all the main points of a transformed economy.  But we can say that black workers and workers of color got the short end of that long stick.

Black workers lost not just income, but wealth—the stored monies that are passed down the generations often in the form of houses or land.  And they lost it at greater rates than white people.   Indeed, today the racial gap in wealth is larger than the racial gap in wages.

Young black men and women lost the knowledge that comes from knowing someone with a good job.  Someone that can refer them to a place that is hiring, and let them know about the job before it is well advertised.   And black unemployment rates have been steadilydouble that for whites.

And they were not educated by the school system to work.  And before you jump all over the school boards remember this: there are not enough job openings if all the kids in the schools came out as Rhodes Scholars with A pluses for grades.  These kids feel like surplus because the way the economy operates they ARE surplus.  Remember the school to prison pipeline and how often and how terrible is the rate of incarceration is for black youth as compared to white youth.  Indeed, in these conditions, the ones who get and keep their fast food jobs are the lucky ones.

In today’s economy, we are not adding enough decent-paying, union-membership manufacturing jobs to the economy.  The economy is mostly adding low-wage, non-union jobs, jobs like the fast food workers have.  The steelworkers, the auto workers, the miners did not have decent union jobs when those industries were first gathering steam.  On Memorial Day 1937, steelworkers in Chicago area were shot down like dogs in the street when they went on strike. Auto workers needed to sit down and hold their factories hostage to win a union contract in 1937.  And not just at Flint.  They sat down at Leeds also.  And Ford finally agreed to go union in June 1941.

And what the fast food workers are doing today is following in their tracks.  They will lift themselves up.  And in so doing they will help inspire other low wage workers to follow suit.  And low-paid hospital aides will rise up. And Walmart workers will rise up. And by lifting themselves up, and winning a living wage and a union, they will lift others up.  Indeed, in my mind they will be lifting the whole world up.

The fast food workers march and rally on April 15, needs you to help lift every one up.  If you want to help undo the mess that deindustrialization did in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I urge you to be there on April 15.  Pick up a flyer and bring your friends.

 Thank you.

Devin Burghart

Author Devin Burghart

is vice president of IREHR. He coordinates our Seattle office, directs our research efforts, and manages our online communications. He has researched, written, and organized on virtually all facets of contemporary white nationalism since 1992, and is internationally recognized for this effort. Devin is frequently quoted as an expert by print, broadcast, and online media outlets. In 2007, he was awarded a Petra Foundation fellowship. more...

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