By Kim Shively
At his rally in Harrisburg on April 29, President Trump promised to restore manufacturing jobs and reinvigorate the coal industry—promises met with cheers and chants from his supporters. Many Pennsylvanians crave jobs that pay a livable wage and offer real benefits, jobs where a single wage-earner can support a family in reasonable comfort. But Trump’s promises are empty. The manufacturing and mining jobs that formed the backbone of employment in Pennsylvania decades ago are not coming back. The reason for this is not that “foreigners” stole the jobs or immigrants drove down wages, though Trump has made a career out of blaming poor, often brown, people for the loss of manufacturing jobs. The primary reason manufacturing jobs are not coming back to America is mechanization. That is, robots took those jobs. And robots are cheap: they don’t need a livable wage or medical benefits or pensions or safe working conditions. They don’t even need bathroom breaks. How can a worker compete?
Similarly, jobs in the coal industry are not coming back, not because of environmental regulations, but because other sources of energy are much cheaper and easier to get. Natural gas from fracking has become a mainstay of American energy production. Natural gas is more accessible than coal, cleaner to use, and its extraction is largely mechanized, too. Coal cannot compete against it. In other words, there is no going back to the imagined past of secure jobs in manufacturing and mining.
What, then, can our society do for the working class? Like Trump and his supporters, we should look to history for an answer, but not the rose-tinted portrait of an American industrial paradise that Trump regularly evokes. We need to look further back in history to the time when manufacturing and mining jobs did not provide a stable path to economic security, and then we need to learn from the struggles that occurred to make those jobs better paying and more secure. In the early days of the industrial revolution in the United States, workers’ wages were extraordinarily low, lack of regulations made these jobs unsafe, unhealthy, and allowed owners to exploit their workers, many of whom were children. Workers’ unions struggled for decades in the 19th century for an eight-hour work day/40-hour work week; the United Mine Workers didn’t achieve an eight-hour work day until 1898. Even then, laborers could work even more than 40-hours a week without making enough to live on. It wasn’t until 1938 with the Fair Labor Standards Act that many of these harmful practices ended. We who want to improve the lives of working Americans need to re-ignite the efforts of our forbearers who fought to guarantee reasonable working hours, decent wages, and safe working environments.
As it is now, wages have not kept up with inflation, especially for those working in the lowest paid jobs. Someone earning minimum wage in a full-time job in Pennsylvania (with no vacation, no sick days), makes only enough to climb slightly above the official poverty line. Even those earning 50% above minimum wage live paycheck to paycheck in order to provide even basic necessities for themselves and their families. That is, today’s low-wage employees are in a similar situation to workers in manufacturing and mining before 1938. It was primarily the organizing and protest of the workers themselves—a long and often painful process—that brought about the job security, healthy working conditions, and livable wages that factory and mining workforce took for granted in the 1950s and 1960s.
So rather than spending time and energy trying to resurrect jobs that are long dead, we can best serve the working class by introducing policies that would provide some degree of economic security in the jobs that are already available. These policies include a higher minimum wage, universal health care, more robust social support programs that assist working parents, to name a few. This is a more realistic and sustainable path to creating the kind of jobs that can truly sustain our working families and communities.