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Well Shiver Me Timbers!

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You mean that providing working-class people good paying jobs is a critical part of fighting poverty? And that industrial labor can make a huge difference in solving this problem? Amazing!!! Who knew!

James Branch’s life seemed destined to follow a familiar arc in the streets that surround the Marlin Steel factory, where he bends metal from sunrise until near dark.

He fathered a child while in high school, dropped out, then spent a dozen years selling drugs. He went to prison and, afterward, squatted in abandoned houses in West Baltimore. He worked the fryer at Popeyes and fought the temptation to go back to dealing on street corners that many Americans will know from the television series “The Wire.”

Fortunately, things turned around for Mr. Branch.

Now 40, he earns just over $20 an hour as a skilled machine operator at Marlin Steel, a small maker of specialized metal baskets used by much bigger manufacturers like Ford Motor, Boeing and Merck. He owns a car, rents a two-story townhouse with an airy backyard and recently watched the daughter he fathered at 16 as she graduated from college with a degree in psychology.

What altered Mr. Branch’s fate? There was his own discipline, of course, like completing a two-year course in metalwork between his shifts at Popeyes. Or getting up at 3:45 a.m. and taking three buses to avoid being late for his first factory job.

But his success is also because of the unlikely survival of Marlin Steel, a rare breed: the urban industrial manufacturer.

Marlin is a thriving factory in a place that, over the last half-century, factories have fled — first to the South, and later to Asia. That flight haunts the United States perhaps most in its urban areas — especially neighborhoods that once housed the nation’s working class — and helps explain why many African-Americans in particular today live in poverty in metropolises like Baltimore, Detroit, Newark and St. Louis.

But bromides about reeducation and retraining programs for jobs that lead nowhere and place the blame on workers when they fail are so much easier! And of course no one is claiming that industrial jobs are ever going to flee back to the United States. But it also demonstrates that work, including industrial work, needs to be part of the American economic strategy for working people. And it just hasn’t been for a very long time. That isn’t going to mean new GM factories that employ 20,000 people on the shop floor. But maybe more of these smaller factories can play an important role. Most critically, industrial labor with decent wages can provide hope and dignity for working people. And that is absolutely crucial for the stability of the country, as we are seeing during this election cycle. However we accomplish this, whether through McDonald’s paying $20 an hour or finding ways to create new industrial jobs, working-class people or people generally that simply don’t have the skills or the inclination to go to college simply must have a path to a dignified life. Unfortunately, policy makers have not taken these questions seriously enough over the past half-century.

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  • Warren Terra

    With this title, I thought the post would be about Iceland’s Pirate Party doing well in the polls ahead of today’s election.

  • Honoré De Ballsack

    Next week in the human-interest section of the Times: Owners of Marlin Steel discover they can reap large windfall by moving factory overseas. James Branch goes back to dealing drugs.

    • Honoré De Ballsack

      And just FYI, Erik: I wish it weren’t so, I agree with your goals 100%, and I hope that the future improves for the working class.

  • Nobdy

    It’s great that this guy got a job, but I’m not sure what the industrial angle is, really. Is it particularly relevant that the job was in manufacturing instead of some other reasonably paying industry? I get that manufacturing jobs tend to be paid higher and commandeer more respect than most other jobs, but that’s not inherent to them, it’s more tradition than anything else (and the fact that competence and reliability are more obviously important in industrial jobs than some other jobs.)

    Also while this one company has done well, there’s nothing to suggest that its success could easily be regulated, even under somewhat different policies.

    I just don’t see how to apply this story in a meaningful way to policy prescription.

    You say:

    Most critically, industrial labor with decent wages can provide hope and dignity for working people. And that is absolutely crucial for the stability of the country, as we are seeing during this election cycle.

    But then you also sort of acknowledge that raising the pay (and social prestige) of service jobs could accomplish a lot of the same good things (and may be easier as policy because those jobs currently exist in large numbers in the U.S. and are much harder to offshore than large scale manufacturing.)

    I’m all for better jobs with higher wages, and even for policies to encourage manufacturing in the U.S., but I don’t really understand the fetishization of the manufacturing industry, especially given that I believe automation is going to cut into jobs in this sector pretty severely and soon (as it will everywhere, but it’s harder to automate customer facing jobs in a satisfactory way.)

    The factory of the future is likely going to involve a lot of machines and a few human overseers. Maybe that will mean that some industry moves back to the U.S. as the labor cost differential becomes smaller, but we’re talking about jobs here, not industrial capacity.

    In 20 years humans will still be cutting hair, serving meals, and greeting people at reception, because other humans like dealing with people and your hair salon can’t relocate to China without severely inconveniencing you. I think the more fruitful focus is in encouraging the increase of pay and social prestige of those jobs.

    • DrDick

      Unemployment in manufacturing does not track with automation, but with the outsourcing of manufacturing to low wage countries. We are still using just as many workers to produce most of the goods we use, we are just paying them much less.

    • CSI

      There’s all these jobs in agriculture, service etc that are currently assigned largely to illegal immigrants because “Americans won’t do them”. Well maybe if they offered at least minimum wage, decent conditions and benefits they would.

      All these low-status manual jobs given to illegal immigrants at near slave wages, poor conditions, no security – its akin to some form of feudalism. Funny how all these ancient societal patterns keep recurring. How do Americans just blithely accept it?

      “people generally that simply don’t have the skills or the inclination to go to college simply must have a path to a dignified life”

      But even if 100% of the population were to go to college most jobs would still be these sort of more menial jobs that don’t really require college education. So why do we keep assuming the solution to unemployment is to just send everyone to college?

  • AMK

    absolutely critical for the stability of this country, as we are seeing during this election cycle

    I assume that’s James Branch in the picture…so odds are he’s not exactly part of the “stability” problem regardless of how much an hour he makes.

  • efgoldman

    Some years ago (before the 2007 crash) ABC News did a regular feature called “Made in America” highlighting small but expanding US manufacturers of all kinds.
    The google still has the links, but as far as I can tell the feature is no longer running.
    I’m wondering how many of those companies have survived.

  • No bromide intended, but James Branch needed retraining or training that he got by earning his GED in prison and the free course at the Magna Baltimore Technical Training Center (which closed down in 2014 but has since been reopened as Jane Addams Resource Corporation Baltimore with support from all levels of government). A lot more is needed.

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