Most people living in the Mahoning Valley believe what we do for work is more than just how we make money. Our jobs can give us purpose and build our communities. For decades, that’s what good union manufacturing jobs did for people of all races and backgrounds who made their lives in the Valley.
But today, certain politicians and the corporations that bankroll them want to pit us against each other. They scapegoat immigrants and other countries, hoping to distract us as they hold down our wages, attack our right to join a union and take away our jobs — relocating to places with the fewest rules so they can exploit working people for their profit. A new report from Policy Matters Ohio, The Century Foundation and Groundwork Collaborative shows that despite the Trump administration’s pro-worker rhetoric, over the last four years, corporations in the industrial Midwest have continued the three-decade trend of layoffs, plant closures and union busting.
Manufacturing corporations started closing down more plants and making more layoffs in the early 2000s recession. It got even worse during the Great Recession of 2008. Federal recovery packages — especially for the auto industry — helped, and between 2010 and 2016, manufacturing companies added about 294,000 jobs for a partial recovery. In 2010, after receiving $60 million in tax incentives from the state, General Motors began production of the Chevy Cruze in the Lordstown plant.
JD Power ranked Lordstown the most productive plant in North America, but without public policy protections, productivity isn’t enough to ensure corporations will treat working people fairly. Trump’s trade negotiations with Mexico and Canada and the millions from the state didn’t stop GM from seeking cheaper labor elsewhere last year. GM chose to build the Chevy Blazer in Mexico — laying off or relocating 4,500 people and wiping out a crucial source of tax revenue for the surrounding community.
Recently the Ohio Tax Credit Authority approved what might be the largest clawback in U.S. history, and will make GM pay back $28 million of their $60 million incentive. GM must also give another $12 million for education and training and Mahoning Valley community programs and infrastructure. Even still, GM left a wound behind in Lordstown, and working people at GM’s Mexican plants aren’t getting a fair deal either. They’re being paid just $3 to $5 per hour.
Lordstown closed long before COVID-19 hit. Like many other industries, the pandemic took a toll on manufacturing in the industrial heartland states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Manufacturing firms have cut 140,000 jobs since March, wiping out eight years of job gains. Today about 2.4 million manufacturing jobs remain in the four-state region, compared to 3.4 million at the start of the new century.
Manufacturing layoffs and plant closures have hit the Mahoning Valley especially hard, and over many decades. Since 1990, corporations have cut or offshored 38% of Mahoning County’s manufacturing jobs, 70% in Trumbull County and 27% in Columbiana County. Combined, the three counties have 31,000 fewer manufacturing jobs today than they did in 1990. A city that once led the nation in home ownership, nearly 60% of Youngstown children live in poverty, nearly three times that of the state. The city’s population shrank from 170,000 in 1930 to 65,000 today.
Quality jobs in the manufacturing sector built strong communities in places like the Mahoning Valley. Manufacturing firms are more likely to be unionized so offer better benefits and pay for all people, especially for Black and brown workers and women. Today, manufacturing workers in the Great Lakes region with a high school diploma are still paid more than people with similar education in other industries. But with growing attacks on unions, corporations are holding their wages down too, and there is evidence the wage premium is shrinking.
Trading with other nations isn’t bad policy — it’s the way our policymakers choose to trade that’s the problem. Instead of aiding and abetting corporations in seeking the fewest worker and environmental protections they can find, our elected leaders can embrace trade policies that make sure all working people, no matter where they live, are safe on the job and paid a fair return for their labor. We all deserve that — whether we live in Mexico, or in the Mahoning valley.
Unions built the middle class and the middle class is the engine that runs the economy, not the stock market. Once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name sings Springsteen in his song, “Youngstown.” The working class knows there is dignity in work. That message needs to filter up to the top.