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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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