Posts Tagged ‘Jobs’
Sunday, November 23rd, 2014
With 25 percent of its African-American residents jobless, Chicago has the highest black unemployment rate among the nation’s five most populous cities. Chicago’s rate is higher than Philadelphia’s 19 percent, Los Angeles’ 18 percent, Houston’s 15 percent and New York City’s 14 percent, based on 2013 U.S. Census figures.
Experts point to Chicago’s unique brand of residential segregation, among other factors. Almost 75 percent of black Chicagoans live in a community that’s at least 90 percent black, according to Census data. Blacks are about one-third of Chicago’s population. The unemployment rate for white Chicagoans is 7 percent; for Latinos, it’s 12 percent.
Michael Dawson, a leading scholar on politics and race, said Chicago’s “extreme segregation” deprives many residents of the predominantly black South and West Sides of adequate public transit and job networks.
“The way people get hired is through networks,” and most people’s social networks are predominately within their own race, he said.
For decades, the city’s economically marginalized black communities have been saddled with failing, underfunded public schools, high youth unemployment and low college graduation rates.
“You get neighborhoods where not only do you not have a job, you don’t know many other people who have one and can help you get one,” said Valerie Wilson, an economist who heads the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
But segregation alone doesn’t explain the situation.
This blog originally appeared in the Chicago Reported and then reposted on In These Time on November 18, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/17378/chicago_ranks_fifth_in_highest_black_unemployment_rate
About the Author: Adeshina Emmanuel is a reporter for the Chicago Reporter.
Wednesday, November 19th, 2014
To mark the 25th anniversary of the National Child Care Staffing Study, Marcy Whitebook, Deborah Phillips, and Carollee Howes, the principal investigators and authors of the study, have released a white paper examining the progress over the past quarter-century in improving early childhood teaching jobs and attracting and retaining a well-prepared workforce able to foster children’s learning and development.
Worthy Work, STILL Unlivable Wages compiles evidence from multiple sources to provide a portrait of the early childhood teaching workforce today in comparison to 25 years ago and how today’s parents are paying more for child care, but earning less.
The solution? Only by joining together can parents and child care professionals–and indeed whole communities–build a strong foundation for children’s learning and success by giving working parents and their children access to quality care and learning, and by paying wages that allow child care workers to secure a bright future for their own children and families.
This blog originally appeared in SEIU.org on November 18, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://www.seiu.org/2014/11/worthy-work-still-unlivable-wages.php.
Tuesday, November 11th, 2014
The latest jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms what voters felt when they went to the polls Tuesday: Job growth continues slowly but inadequately, built on a weak foundation of weak wage growth and low labor force participation.
There were 214,000 new jobs created in October, the report said, with the unemployment rate at 5.8 percent. It’s enough to prompt optimistic headlines, but as we’ve said repeatedly, this is well under the rate of growth we really need to make workers whole after the damage done by the 2008 recession. We’ve been living with unemployment above 5.8 percent since August 2008 – more than six years.
We still have an economy in which 32 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for more than 26 weeks – that’s almost 3 million people who the job market still does not have room to accommodate. The labor-force participation rate remains at a historic low, under 63 percent. Job growth continues to be concentrated in low-wage service jobs, with only modest increases in manufacturing, construction and other blue-collar occupations. Public-sector job growth barely budged upward.
Wage growth year-over-year remains stuck at about 2 percent, which in effect is virtually no growth at all when inflation is taken into account. Wages should be growing at a rate of 3.5 percent annually to remain consistent with the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent inflation target, so there is plenty of room to raise wages without raising fears of inflation.
This is the economic climate that drove voter anger and frustration Tuesday. It motivated voters to approve minimum-wage-increase referendums whenever they were on the ballot, even as they voted out Democrats who support a minimum wage increase but did not present a bold vision for how to rebuild middle-class prosperity.
Here’s where the tragedy of Tuesday’s election results come into sharp relief. Republicans were more successful than Democrats in tapping into voters’ economic anxiety, even with their record of blocking the policy changes needed to address the causes of that anxiety.
A major infrastructure investment program, done while borrowing costs are near zero, would have bolstered construction, manufacturing and other higher-age sectors. But that effort has now been held hostage to a deal to let corporations off the hook that have stashed profits overseas to avoid corporate taxes. Now that Republicans control the Senate as well as the House, we will see that deal go forward as a bipartisan “compromise” to show that Washington can “get things done.” Never mind that by any reasonable standard letting the nation’s biggest corporations keep billions of their ill-gotten gains from shifting profits overseas is too high a price to pay for the trickle of extra dollars that would be yielded for infrastructure.
There is even less of a chance that a Republican-controlled Congress, believing that every economic challenge is a nail that requires the hammer of top-end tax cuts and government spending cuts, will send increased state and local funds to the nation’s pockets of high unemployment. The Economic Policy Institute released a chart this week that showed that every state but two has shown a decline in the percentage of the working-age population with a job. The drop has been 3 percent nationally, and 28 states have percentages below the national average. Four states – Georgia, Kentucky, New Mexico and Arkansas – have declines that more than double the national average.
That shows how in so many ways, what gains there are in the economy are not broadly shared. This will not be fixed, as Republicans are saying, by repealing the Affordable Care Act, building the Keystone XL pipeline, and by cutting corporate taxes. We need to invest in infrastructure, clean energy, education from preschool to affordable college, and in the communities that are always left behind in a you’re-on-your-own economic climate. Voters who in frustration voted out Democrats who failed to present a vision for how this can be done will now have to join a movement to ensure that Washington and the nation cannot duck these issues in the months and years ahead.
This blog originally appeared in Ourfuture.org on November 7, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://ourfuture.org/20141107/jobs-report-under-the-sunny-headline-deep-roots-of-discontent.
About the author: Isaiah J. Poole has been the editor of OurFuture.org since 2007. Previously he worked for 25 years in mainstream media, most recently at Congressional Quarterly, where he covered congressional leadership and tracked major bills through Congress. Most of his journalism experience has been in Washington as both a reporter and an editor on topics ranging from presidential politics to pop culture. His work has put him at the front lines of ideological battles between progressives and conservatives. He also served as a founding member of the Washington Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
Tuesday, October 28th, 2014
The White House unveiled new executive actions on Monday
directing federal money toward new technologies, apprenticeship programs and competitions designed to assist small manufacturers. The idea is to make the U.S. a magnet for new jobs and investment.
The new executive action will:
- Allow the Pentagon, NASA, and the Energy and Agriculture departments to spend $300 million to develop advanced materials and new technology for sensors and digital manufacturing.
- Direct $100 million in Labor Department funds for apprenticeship programs aimed at advanced manufacturing.
- Authorize the Commerce Department to spend $150 million over five years in 10 states to help manufacturers adopt and market new technologies.
- Give manufacturers access to state-of-the-art facilities like those at national labs – to connect industry and universities on research and development and develop ‘technology testbeds’ where companies can design, prototype and test new products and processes.
President Obama began the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership in June 2011. The administration so far has launched four manufacturing innovation institutes – “hubs” – and there are four more on the way. They have also invested nearly $1 billion for community colleges to train workers for advanced manufacturing jobs.
There is expanded investment in applied research for emerging manufacturing technologies, and a new initiative to get returning veterans into jobs in advanced manufacturing.
This blog originally appeared in Ourfuture.org on October 27, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://ourfuture.org/20141027/president-obamas-latest-manufacturing-push
About the Author: Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.
Tuesday, October 21st, 2014
With the election nearing, Americans still know what they want: job creation. Unemployment is still elevated near 6 percent, and underemployment – including people who have given up looking for work, or who are working part-time when they want to be full-time – was still above 13 percent at last count.
And America’s employment problems precede the recession. That’s important because it suggests that this problem isn’t going away on its own. Underemployment hasn’t dipped below 8 percent in the last 10 years. Consider the decades-long stagnation of middle-class wages and the fact that it often takes two incomes to make ends meet, the long-term decline of union membership, the decimation of manufacturing, and the fact that higher education is becoming more of an economic necessity while also being less affordable. The 21st century labor market leaves too many Americans out in the cold.
America needs jobs, and not just any jobs. We need living-wage jobs that provide stability and security through regular working hours, paid time off and career paths for those who want to climb higher. And the economy is not creating those jobs on its own.
The good news is that where there’s a will, there’s a way. Americans want jobs, and the federal government has the means to deliver. Over a trillion dollars in tax breaks each year and historically high Pentagon spending mean that America has the cash to pay for job creation – if we really want to.
Here are three winning ways we could invest our dollars in things that America actually needs, and create good jobs in the process:
? Get Real About Climate Change
Americans are warming up to the idea that climate change is real, and that it poses a threat. But that hasn’t translated to wanting to do something about it.
Of course, we must. From coastal damage from violent storms to disastrous effects on agriculture, climate change is already hurting us. Even the Pentagon is warning about potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change for national security.
Given our collective lack of economic security, perhaps it’s not a surprise that we only really pay attention to climate change when its devastating impacts are looping continuously on our TV screens. But what’s the nudge America needs to get real about climate change?
Maybe more awareness of the tremendous economic benefits that could result from serious action. A recent report from University of Massachusetts’ Political and Economic Research Institute (PERI) and the Center for American Progress (CAP) suggests that if America invested fully in battling climate change, we could achieve a 40 percent reduction in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions within 20 years, and create a net increase of 2.7 million jobs in the process.
The kind of investment that PERI and CAP propose – around $200 billion a year – could be truly transformational to the American economy. And while the proposed $200 billion a year is a big investment, it’s less than the government currently manages to shell out to defense contractors each year.
? Invest in Infrastructure
American ingenuity has taken many forms, and our infrastructure achievements have been some of the most spectacular in the world. From bringing the world the internet, to railroads and the interstate highway system, to hydropower dams like the Hoover Dam that both awe us and provide us with renewable energy, to feats of engineering and art like the Golden Gate and Brooklyn Bridges, our infrastructure has long made Americans proud.
But that infrastructure is crumbling. Major infrastructure investments in the 20th century have been left to a slow and steady decline. This year Congress came within hours of allowing the Highway Trust Fund, a major funding source for states’ road repairs, to dry up – along with 700,000 jobs.
Construction jobs are good jobs. They pay well, and they don’t require a lot of formal education, making them a critical stepping stone to the middle class for workers without a college degree.
Infrastructure is an investment that makes good economic sense for the times we’re in. As former National Economic Council Director Larry Summers has pointed out, infrastructure is a sensible investment for our times: it can’t be offshored, unemployment among construction workers remains high, and interest rates are at historical lows. As Summers asks, if not now, when?
? Believe the Children Are Our Future
Americans talk a good game about this one, but we don’t put our money where our mouth is. Only two percent of all federal spending is for education.
President Obama proposed a modest funding level of $750 million to invest in Preschool for All in two thirds of the states. Despite strong bipartisan support for public preschool among Americans, his proposal has seen no serious congressional consideration and is not likely to be included when Congress revisits fiscal year 2015 funding levels in December.
But it should be. Public preschool is about as winning a proposition as there is. Evidence shows that quality preschool contributes to better outcomes later in life, and not just in education and career outcomes. Preschool contributes to better health and lower criminal activity, and it makes a particularly big difference for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, making it a crucial tool in the battle against economic inequality.
It’s also worthwhile as a pure investment: for every dollar invested in preschool, society saves as much as $17 down the road. At that rate, the president’s requested $750 million, which is a tiny blip on the radar of federal spending, would save more than $12 billion in years to come.
From the job creation perspective, a strong publicly supported preschool system would require many teachers with a credential like an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, and middle-class wages to match.
Each of these proposals requires new uses for our tax dollars. We should remember that America’s greatest achievements didn’t come through austerity or tax cuts; they came through heroic levels of public investment. Making that investment will create jobs now and a strong legacy for the future. Now, that’s a win.
This blog originally appeared in Ourfuture.org. October 21, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://ourfuture.org/20141021/three-winning-ways-to-create-jobs
About the Author: Lindsay Koshgarian is research director for the National Priorities Project.
Tuesday, October 7th, 2014
This was almost predictable: the traditional media, and too many bloggers who regurgitate what they read in the traditional media, are buying into the “rebound” in the economy because of today’s Labor Department report; the stock market goes up; and, I’m certain, pretty soon, the White House will be taking credit for all this and, subtly or not so subtly, arguing that, see, aren’t we great, vote for us. It’s nonsense. So, here is the visual to remember:
That chart does not reflect the 5.9 percent number being touted today–but the point is still the same: we have a very sick economy where people cannot find meaningful, solid, decent-paying work and are dropping out of the workforce. As Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research points out, in an email just landing in my inbox:
“…there was no change in the employment-to-population ratio which remained fixed at 59.0 percent. In fact, labor force participation fell by 0.3 percentage points for white men in September and 0.2 percentage points for white women.”
Even the centrist, Clinton-Administration-in-waiting-awash-in-corporate-donations, free-market-cheerleaders, the Center for American Progress said yesterday:
“Policymakers and pundits have taken far too much comfort in the decline in the headline unemployment rate. The extent to which unemployment has dropped depends on how it’s measured, especially in this recovery. The typical measure, called U-3 by economists, is pretty restrictive: It counts the percentage of people who are actively looking for work but cannot find it. There are other, broader measures we can look at. Perhaps the most complete picture, called U-6, includes marginally attached workers—those who have looked for work recently but are not looking currently—and those working part time who would prefer full-time work. U-6 is always higher than U-3, but it has gotten a lot higher since the recession, and the gap has been essentially unchanged since January.”
“Another reason that the traditional unemployment rate is less informative about the overall health of the labor market is the fact that today the number of long-term unemployed, while down sharply from its postrecession peak, is still almost 50 percent higher than its highest prerecession level on record. There are still 3 million Americans who have been unemployed for half a year or longer and are still actively searching for work. Thirty-three percent of all unemployed fall into this long-term unemployed category. The average length of time someone has spent unemployed is about seven-and-a-half months, almost double what it was before the recession.[emphasis added]”
Back to Dean Baker:
“The number of people involuntarily employed part-time by fell 174,000 to 7,103,000. This is extraordinarily high given the unemployment rate. The number of people choosing to work part time rose slightly and now stands 642,000 above its year-ago level. This presumably is the result of people taking advantage of Obamacare and getting insurance through the exchanges or expanded Medicaid rather than their employers.[emphasis added]”
So, this means: A persistent, large core of workers–real people–are in part-time jobs because they can’t find full-time work. This is a trend that goes back way before the financial crisis. It is, in fact, the result of a conscious corporate decision to REDUCE the number of full-time, good-paying jobs, and to work off of part-time workers.
It means more people have dropped out of the job market, over time, because it’s just too damn depressing to look for real, meaningful, stable work.
What really has happened here is that the frame has shifted. For example, when elites, including Democrats, talk about “full employment”, they mean 5.5 percent or so–which, back in the day, would be seen as unconscionably high; full employment, at worse, was pegged at 4 percent (and could probably go a bit lower).
But, there is an acceptance of a certain level of desperation now and exploitation that would have been seen as immoral say 30-40 years ago.
In my opinion, it is much more helpful, for the sake of long-term political chance, to challenge the chatter of these jobs reports, pointing out the realities facing millions of people.
The economy is very sick because people can’t make a decent living. This is not recovery.
This blog originally appeared in Workinglife.org on October 3, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://www.workinglife.org/2014/10/03/the-phony-jobs-report-hype-a-very-sick-economy-millions-of-workers-who-dont-count/.
About the author Jonathan Tasini: On any given day, I think like a political-union organizer or a writer — or both. I’ve done the traditional press routine including The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Business Week, Playboy Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. One day, back when blogs were just starting out, I created Working Life. I used to write every day but sometimes there just isn’t something new to say so I cut back to weekdays, with an occasional weekend post when it moves me. I’ve also written four books: It’s Not Raining, We’re Being Peed On: The Scam of the Deficit Crisis (2010 and, then, the updated 2nd edition in 2013); The Audacity of Greed: Free Markets, Corporate Thieves and The Looting of America (2009); They Get Cake, We Eat Crumbs: The Real Story Behind Today’s Unfair Economy, an average reader’s guide to the economy (1997); and The Edifice Complex: Rebuilding the American Labor Movement to Face the Global Economy, a critique and prescriptive analysis of the labor movement (1995).
Friday, September 26th, 2014
Some 9,000 new postal clerk jobs are on the way, thanks to action by the American Postal Workers Union (APWU). The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) in 2012 cut the hours of operation at small post offices around the country and filled new jobs at the offices with part-time, nonunion workers. APWU filed a grievance.
The collective bargaining agreement between the union and USPS committed management to assign any newly created or revised retail positions that had no managerial or supervisory duties to union employees.
An arbitrator agreed with the APWU and a memorandum of understanding between the union and the USPS reached earlier this week outlines how those new jobs will be filled. Said APWU President Mark Dimondstein:
“The arbitration award…and the accompanying implementation memo mean thousands of jobs within 90 days—not years from now.”
This blog originally appeared on AFLCIO.org in their Blog Section on September 25, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://www.aflcio.org/Blog/Organizing-Bargaining/APWU-Victory-9-000-New-Jobs
About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was still blue, he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold my blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen him at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. He was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still has the shirts, lost the hair.
Friday, August 30th, 2013
New technology is keeping more and more workers stuck in low-wage jobs, and it’s society’s responsibility to make sure those jobs still have dignity and fair wages.
With robots taking over factories and warehouses, toll collectors and cashiers increasingly being replaced by automation and even legal researchers being replaced by computers, the age-old question of whether technology is a threat to jobs is back with us big time. Technological change has been seen as a threat to jobs for centuries, but the history tells that while technology has destroyed some jobs, the overall impact has been to create new jobs, often in new industries. Will that be true after the information revolution as it was in the industrial revolution?
In an article in The New York Times, David Autor and David Dorn, who have just published research on this question, argue that the basic history remains the same: while many jobs are being disrupted, new jobs are being created and many jobs will not be replaceable by computers. While there is good news in their analysis for some in the middle-class, their findings reinforce the need to organize workers in lower-skilled jobs to demand decent wages.
The authors’ research found that while routine jobs are being replaced by computers, the number of both “abstract” and “manually intensive” jobs increased. In their article in the Times, the authors describe the new jobs:
At one end are so-called abstract tasks that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity. These tasks are characteristic of professional, managerial, technical and creative occupations, like law, medicine, science, engineering, advertising and design. People in these jobs typically have high levels of education and analytical capability, and they benefit from computers that facilitate the transmission, organization and processing of information.
On the other end are so-called manual tasks, which require situational adaptability, visual and language recognition and in-person interaction. Preparing a meal, driving a truck through city traffic or cleaning a hotel room present mind-bogglingly complex challenges for computers. But they are straightforward for humans, requiring primarily innate abilities like dexterity, sightedness and language recognition, as well as modest training. These workers can’t be replaced by robots, but their skills are not scarce, so they usually make low wages.
As the authors conclude, “This bifurcation of job opportunities has contributed to the historic rise in income inequality.”
When it comes to addressing this attack on the middle class, the authors offer some hope, but not for those low-wage workers. They argue that a large number of skilled jobs, requiring specialized training—although not necessarily a college education—will not be replaceable by computers. These include people who care for our health like medical paraprofessionals, people who care for our buildings like plumbers, people who help us use technology (I was chatting online just yesterday to get tech support) and many others. Because these jobs do require higher levels of skills, they should be able to demand middle-class wages.
But what about those housekeepers, delivery truck drivers and fast-food workers, like those who are taking actions around the country today against fast-food chains to demand better pay. The authors do not offer a path to the middle class for them.
If history is an example here as well, we should remember that lower-skilled work does not have to come with low pay. The workers who stood on assembly lines in the 1930s did not have a college education or years of specialized training; they fought for the right to organize unions and demanded high enough wages to support their families.
This Labor Day, as more and more workers are stuck in the growing number of low-wage jobs, causing enormous stress for their families while keeping the economy sluggish, we need to look to the examples of new ways of organizing workers who can not be replaced by technology. There’s the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, who organized drivers to successfully win living wages and a health and disability fund. Or the successful boycott of Hyatt Hotels, leading to an agreement with UNITE HERE to not fight organizing campaigns in their hotels.
We need to support organizing by modernizing our labor laws to account for the large number of workers not currently or adequately protected, the new ways that work is organized and the global economy.
The lesson from the Autor–Dorn research is that technology doesn’t have to destroy the middle class. What will destroy the middle class is our failure as a society to provide dignity to all workers. That’s what fast-food workers and their community-labor supporters are fighting for across the country.
This article originally appeared in The Next New Deal Blog on August 29, 2013, and was cross-posed on AFL-CIO Now on August 30, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Richard Kirsch is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a senior adviser to USAction and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was national campaign manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.
Tuesday, August 6th, 2013
Whenever communities, lawmakers or activists question or criticize Walmart for the way it treats workers—the low-pay, the stores’ impact on the communities—the retail giant pulls out a well-worn script with a simple message, “Walmart creates jobs and if there’s one thing this economy needs, it’s more jobs.”
Setting aside the quality of the jobs for another day, is Walmart telling the truth? Sure doesn’t look like it, according to Salon’s Kathleen Geier, who matches Walmart’s claims against in-depth research from universities, economists, government studies and other sources. Here’s what she finds:
Contrary to Walmart’s self-glorifying mythology, the retailer is anything but a job creator—in fact, it is a huge job killer. Not only that, destroying jobs is an essential component of Walmart’s anti-worker business model.
She cites a study led by Economist David Neumark—who, by the way, has written against raising the minimum wage in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
Using data from more than 3,000 counties, [the] results show that when a Walmart store opens, it kills an average 150 retail jobs at the county level, with each Walmart worker replacing about 1.4 retail workers. These results are robust under a variety of models and tests.
A 2009 study by Loyola University found that the opening of a Chicago Walmart store was “a wash,” destroying as many jobs as it created. According to the report, “There is no evidence that Wal-Mart sparked any significant net growth in economic activity or employment in the area.” Says Geier:
In short, when Walmart comes to town, it doesn’t “create” anything. All it does is put mom-and-pop stores out of business.
Walmart’s job-killing spree doesn’t stop at the city limits. The remains of once good jobs are scattered throughout Walmart’s entire supply chain. Its cut-throat drive for lower prices, writes Geier, squeezes suppliers to deliver goods at the lowest possible prices and that means cutting labor costs—aka jobs.
Read the full article.
Walmart’s using that specious jobs argument in its fight to block a living wage law in Washington,D.C. Find out more here.
Article originally appeared on AFL-CIO NOW on August 6, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety
Wednesday, June 26th, 2013
I know what it’s like to depend upon coal to feed a family. Many years ago I worked at a steel mill in Ohio. My job was at the coke plant where West Virginia coal was turned into coking coal for the blast furnace. The top of the coke ovens was an area the size of a football field where monstrous machines funneled coal into the ovens. It was my job to put the heavy oven lids back on nice and tight. It was literally as hot as hell up there. It felt like walking barefoot on hot coals. The air we breathed was truly foul but to us it was the sweet smell of something like success. We called it the smell of money because it paid the bills.
Yet as soon as I got a chance to escape the coke ovens, I took it. I got a job bid on a crew at the blast furnace. But I couldn’t escape the coal. Like the devil or a bad check, coal will find you. It followed me to the blast furnace.
Big railroad cars full of coking coal arrived at the blast furnace every two or three hours. In the winter it would get as cold as twenty below zero and the coal would freeze solid into one huge mass. The company said under no circumstances were we to climb into the open-top railroad cars to break up the coal. But the company also made it clear we better hurry up and get that coal offloaded. So in we went, carrying big torches to heat the coal and pry bars to break it up. We prayed that it wouldn’t loosen all at once with the possibility that we might go down the chute with it. Many times on a cold winter night I had to look in on my sleeping babies to motivate myself to leave for work on midnight shift.
There was a small group of environmentalists in town who kept raising hell about the pollution from the steel mills. I understood their point. After all, I was more directly affected by pollution than they were. But they didn’t even give lip service to our need to feed our families. So I dismissed them out of hand. In fact, I hated them and feared the changes they might be able to bring about. Jobs or the environment? An easy choice to make. Jobs are more important.
Eventually I was permanently downsized from the mill. The loss of my job caused severe dislocation for my family. It also caused dislocation in my mind, creating an opening, a new space. Facts and events that had once gone in one ear and out the other began to find a place in my thinking. Global warming. Poisoned rivers and oceans. Black lung disease. Hurricane Katrina. Oil spills. Coal-fired power plants spewing acid and deadly metals into our air.
Slowly and not always surely, I began to realize that the environmentalists I had once rejected as extremists were correct when they said that fossil fuels are destroying the earth. Coal and oil aren’t just causing some problems we can learn to live with in pursuit of economic survival. They are going to make it impossible for humans to live on this planet.
Jobs or the environment? Posing the question that way eliminates any chance of coming up with answers and it ignores the people who live at ground zero of the debate. I know first-hand what goes through the minds of coal miners as they sit at the kitchen table facing a pile of bills. “Yes, I know what some people say about what we do. They may even be right. But just give me one more month on this job so I can pay the rent and the electric and the credit card bill. Then maybe one more month after that and another after that until the youngest finishes school.”
Jobs or the environment? Soon it will be too late and we will have neither. Unless we come together under the banner of both.
This article was originally printed in Love and War: My First Thirty Years of Writing by Lee Ballinger. If you would like to make a comment or to be notified when the book is published, please email [email protected] or go to http://www.facebook.com/leeballingerwrites.