53206: The Poverty of Politics

Photograph Source: Ron Reiring – CC BY 2.0

Keeping the Poor, Poor

In a move resembling the fictionalized “People’s Front of Judea’s” struggles against Roman rule in Monty Python’s classic 1979 comedy Life of Brian, an alliance of anti-meat activists and higher office seeking politician just shut down a proposed meat processing plant straddling the edge of Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code. While opposing Roman suzerainty represented the good fight in Life of Brian, please remember what their strategy was for stopping the Romans: mass suicide…

The proposed plant (Strauss Meats) straddles Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code, notorious for its de-industrialization induced blight and poverty. Century City is the rebranded 80 acre “business park” that once housed A.O. Smith, once the largest producer of auto and truck frames in the United States. At its peak, it employed nearly 8000 industrial union workers. These jobs delivered solid incomes to African-Americans in the 53206 and adjacent zip codes. A.O. Smith’s closure, along with a larger deindustrialization underway in Milwaukee, struck a death blow to middle-class aspirations for many of the city’s African-Americans. The ensuing socio-economic devastation there reminds one of Tacitus’ characterization of Carthage, put in the mouth of the Celtic chieftain Calgacus before the battle of Mons Graupius, of Rome’s victories, where “they make a desert and they call it peace.” While there was no intent to destroy Milwaukee’s north side African-American neighborhoods, the shuttering of its factories were nonetheless similar in effect to Carthage’s treatment at the hands of Rome. Both were rendered “deserts,” Carthage for farming and 53206 (and neighboring areas) for living-wage jobs.

The City of Milwaukee has long tried bringing employment to the blighted Century City site. A long struggle was undertaken to bring high-speed rail to Wisconsin, with its $800 million construction costs fully funded by the Federal government. Spanish train manufacturer Talgo was brought to Century City to build train cars. Unfortunately, this project crashed on the shoals of then Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s presidential aspirations. Walker, supported and mentored by the dirty energy Koch Brothers, shut down the rail project. Talgo remains, but employs only a few people.

A decade later Milwaukee now managed to interest Strauss Meats of Franklin Wisconsin to the Century City site. The area’s local city councilman, Khalif Rainery, supported the project. Promising to deliver 250 jobs to start, with expansion to 500, Strauss could have started a desperately needed trickle of money into the 53206 income desert. Strauss’ Franklin, WI unionized plant pays workers $13-17 an hour. Nobody gets rich on that wage, but in a two-earner household, in an area with low housing costs, this wage can provide a decent living. Moreover, this income would seed the neighborhood with demand-side multiplier effects sustaining new area businesses.

But, then the “perfect making the enemy of the good” campaign started. Opposition was mounted by anti-meat, and incidentally mostly white, activists chiefly from outside the immediate area. Their general concerns are ones all should consider. Meat comes from the killing of arguably sentient beings. Belching, flatulent beasts raised for human consumption contribute mightily to the production of global warming greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, grain-fed animals consume resources and generate pollution. These are all legitimate arguments in favor of reducing or even eventually ending the consumption of meat. Yet, none of these goals are served by shutting down a single meat processing plant that is going to open at some location regardless.

Misplaced, however, were arguments comparing Strauss’s proposed plant to the XL Pipeline or proposed strip mines in Wisconsin’s northwoods. In both cases the risk of environmental catastrophes are ever present. Moreover, given limited sources of supply, such as with the Bakken oil-shale fields of the Dakotas or the Tar Sands of Alberta, stopping pipeline projects can have a real impact on diminishing the supply of a harmful (fossil fuel) industry, given the lack of alternatives for bringing this oil to market.

Furthermore, Strauss is no Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics giant with a reputation for mistreatment of labor, pollution and deal breaking that Scott Walker and Donald Trump brought to Wisconsin. There was no multi-billion subsidy, as Scott Walker and the Wisconsin GOP showered on Foxconn. Granted, Strauss was going to be given the land to build on for $1. But, this property has for years stubbornly resisted efforts to attract enterprise. Strauss would pay their own building costs and and pay property taxes on their plant as well.

A real concern expressed by some in the neighborhood of the site was pollution and odors. This should have led to serious discussions and definable plans of how Strauss would handle the treatment and air quality and wastewater (which they presently have a decent record of). Strauss, a company with over 80 years in Wisconsin, has a solid reputation in an industry that has many bad actors. In fact, the company’s sole extant operation is in Milwaukee’s white suburb of Franklin, where that municipality has lobbied Strauss hard to expand their existing facility. Strauss works with lots of family farms and buy many grass-fed animals. While not suggesting perfection for Strauss, it was neither honest nor helpful for anti-meat activists to conjure images of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and the slaughterhouses of Chicago from a century back (or even the worst modern industrial butchering plants) in working to stop this plant. Nor was it accurate to suggest that Strauss wanted to engage in the all-too-common practice of exploiting a black central city neighborhood.

Lastly, some said, “why not better STEM jobs making more useful and/or producing less harmful products like solar panels or train cars?” While this is a great question to pose for advancing a socialist vision for re-development in the context of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, the market alone presently won’t support it. The US is no longer competitive with China on solar panels, and Talgo already makes train cars at Century City, but with few people employed. Moreover, while it would be nice to have STEM related jobs around the 53206 area code, one needs to be reminded of what 4 decades of de-industrialization has wrought. The area’s public high school, North Division has ACT (the midwest’s version of the SAT) scores ranking in the lowest 7% for the nation. Less than 40% of the area’s students graduate from high school. Only 5% of North Division’s students test proficient in math and reading, and test scores generally are in the bottom 1% for Wisconsin. Remembering the area’s poverty, over 90% of their students are eligible to receive federally funded free lunches. Moreover, over half of Milwaukee County’s African-American males in their 30’s have prison records and unemployment rates are high. In short, the 53206 area needs jobs now. Not jobs at any cost, but jobs at the level of where many people are after decades of deindustrialization. With employment and living wages in place, these communities can begin to rebuild. Without them, nothing changes.

While tempting to solely blame a group of anti-meat activists for the failure of the Strauss project to materialize, the project was advancing regardless, until an intervention was made from another quarter. When a significant project suddenly collapses the classic question of cui bono? must be asked. And, in this instance the person benefiting is Lena Taylor. Taylor, a state senator with a habit for finding herself at the center of controversies, recently announced her intent to run for mayor of Milwaukee. That goal would be enhanced by denying the current mayor, Tom Barrett, a victory in bringing jobs to Milwaukee’s urban core, where Taylor serves as an officeholder. With the Strauss deal sailing toward easy passage in the city council, Taylor’s legislative aide Michelle Bryant used her platform as morning host with Milwaukee’s African-American talk radio, WNOV, the week before the project collapsed to daily disparage the Strauss deal. Mayor Barrett was blind-sided by this last minute attack, but in part left himself open to it by not explaining its benefits to local community members.

Coda: the stop Strauss campaign prevailed this week. Local alderman Khalif Rainey abruptly reversed support for the project under new opposition arising concurrently with the disparaging radio campaign from state senator Lena Taylor’s legislative aide. Strauss responded by exiting from their plans to invest in Century City. A more holistic overview of people’s needs might have been employed that weighed the benefits of this project with possible problems and brought oversight to ensure legitimate neighborhood environmental concerns were addressed. Instead, the “People’s Front of Judea” strategy prevailed, with no practical substitute for delivering work to the area’s income starved residents. The question also remains of what constitutes progressive activism? Can single-issue activist groups, regardless of how well intentioned, thwart efforts at economic development benefiting primarily the poor? And, if so, how can we reconcile these goals in the future to prevent poor and working people from becoming collateral damage in these struggles? In short, progressives should seek to expand what is possible. Yet, such efforts must not simply devolve into reactive campaigns against incremental efforts to improve people’s condition, nor permit individual opportunism to trump the greater good.

Jeffrey Sommers is Professor of Political Economy & Public Policy in the Department of African &African Diaspora Studies and a Senior Fellow, Institute of World Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His book on the Baltics (with Charles Woolfson), is The Contradictions of Austerity: The Socio-economic Costs of the Neoliberal Baltic Model.