There was a time when Milwaukee was known far and wide as “The Machine Shop of the World.” You name it, they made it.
This strong manufacturing base employed hundreds of thousands of people, including many groups previously denied access to economic opportunities. As in other northern cities, Milwaukee’s factories were desperate for workers, which gave way to the “Great Migration” of African Americans from southern states to the North. Despite widespread discrimination, for many African Americans the factory work meant access to good, middle class jobs for the first time.
In the 1980s, the Milwaukee metropolitan area had about 220,000 jobs in manufacturing; through the 1990s, that number hovered around 170,000 and then began to drop significantly after 2000 to around 120,000 today.
This depletion of manufacturing jobs has hit the African American community the hardest and is, perhaps, why the website 24/7 Wall Street recently named Milwaukee the “Worst City For Black Americans.” According to the site, Milwaukee’s African American unemployment rate is 17.2 percent in a metropolitan area that has an overall unemployment rate of 6.0 percent.
Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have tapped into anger felt by the loss of manufacturing jobs and pointed to so-called “free trade” deals with China and other countries as the culprit. According to the Economic Policy Institute, well over three million jobs have been lost in the United States to China since trade relations were normalized in 2000 under then-President Bill Clinton.
In a recent appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Donald Trump, was asked why it was that he and Bernie Sanders had won the New Hampshire primaries. Without hesitation, Trump said:
“We’re being ripped off by everybody. And I guess that’s the thing that Bernie Sanders and myself have in common. We know about the trade. But unfortunately he can’t do anything to fix it, whereas I will.
This common focus on what Bernie Sanders calls “corporate-written trade deals” has largely been ignored by the media's coverage of the race. But in tonight's debate, look for Sanders to bring it up again and again.
Because, if there’s any place in the world where people are angry about trade deals that have exported their jobs overseas, it’s Milwaukee.
Jud Lounsbury is a frequent contributor to The Progressive.