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Racine: Haunted City


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July 2007

ist factory worker in Racine.
The Depression hammered Racine, and my fami-
ly. My mom had to drop out of high school to sup-
port her siblings. My paternal grandfather, who got
fired three times for his activism, saw his home fore-
closed on.
During the upheavals of the 1930s, Racine was a
hotbed of working class radicalism. And it became
one of three Wisconsin cities—along with Milwaukee
and Sheboygan—that elected socialist mayors.
A lot has changed since then.
These days, no one is moving to Racine to seek
factory work. From a peak of 31,900 manufacturing
jobs in 1979, Racine has lost 13,500 factory jobs, 42
percent of its industrial base. Two members of my
extended family even “scabbed” as replacement work-
ers during a 2004-2005 labor dispute at CNH (for-
merly Case), though their father has been a longtime
union activist.
Poverty in Racine now stands at 20.7 percent, and
hunger gnaws at residents. “The Racine County Food
Bank is in danger of running out of food this winter
because of heavy demand from food pantries in
recent months,” the local paper reported in Novem-
ber. “The Food Bank, which supplies food to local
pantries and meal programs, has seen more than a 30
percent increase in the amount of food it’s giving out
compared to a year ago.” Food Bank Executive Direc-
tor Dan Taivalkoski said in May that the organiza-
tion’s pantry wasn’t emptied last winter only because
“the community really came through with food and
monetary donations. But the need is not going
down.”

By Roger Bybee
Illustration by Douglas Fraser

Racine, Haunted City

Look What Happens When Industry Flees

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer and anti-glob-
alization activist. He edited Racine Labor, the labor
movement’s official weekly paper, from 1979 to 1993.
He has also served as communications director for sever-
al progressive organizations in Wisconsin.

I

n 1917, my mother’s parents packed up their
meager belongings in St. Louis and loaded
them and their little children into a railroad
freight car headed to the then-bustling industrial
mecca of Racine, Wisconsin. Once they arrived,
my staunchly socialist maternal grandfather found
the industrial work he sought so desperately. As it
happens, my paternal grandfather was also a social-

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July 2007

Crime is one of the only growth
industries. The 125-year-old Rainfair
clothing plant, scene of historic
strikes in both the 1930s and 1990,
has been torn down and the jobs
shipped off to China after the firm
was taken over by LaCrosse
Footwear. In Rainfair’s place sits a
gargantuan, windowless, cream-col-
ored “Youthful Offenders Facility.”
As Racine’s factories have been emp-
tied out, jails and prisons have been
filling up. The county jail’s capacity is
being expanded, at a cost of $29.1
million, to 860—about a sixfold
increase since 1980.
Inner-city Racine bears a haunted
look, with its vacant factories and
dilapidated houses. It is surrounded by
a suburban ring of anonymous strip
malls and relatively well-off white sub-
urbs (the city itself is 20 percent
African American and 14 percent
Latino) and a harbor filled with luxu-
ry boats (owned primarily by wealthy
outsiders) on the Lake Michigan side.
The downtown has a Potemkin-village
feel to it, with a front of neatly
restored brick buildings hiding the
squalor of the surrounding areas.
When I visit the North Side
neighborhood where my parents
grew up, I see massive factories
reduced to rubble, vacant lots strewn
with garbage along State Street, and
the occasional chain store filling a gap
here and there.
On North Memorial Drive sit the
remains of the Racine Steel Castings
foundry, which used to provide the
first opportunity for succeeding gen-
erations of Eastern and Southern
European immigrants to earn union
wages. By 1980, UAW Local 553—
by then, mostly black and Latino—
still had 1,100 members who had
been lifted to middle class status by
the union. But during the 1980s,
Local 553 members were put through
the wringer by corporate raider Victor
Posner, who was eventually nailed for
securities fraud and tax evasion.
Even as he paid himself the high-
est CEO salary in the country, Posner
wrenched pay and benefit cuts worth
nearly $4 an hour from workers at
Racine Steel. Eventually, Racine Steel
was sold to new owners. “We could
not compete with companies where
workers are paid $2,500 a year and
our workers were paid $25,000 a
year,” one of the new owners said.
The fact that even $25,000 would
not adequately sustain a family in
Racine was obviously not a factor
that merited consideration.

P

lant closings triggered a deep sense
of betrayal. In 1982, when
Massey-Ferguson ignored the
pledge of job security it had given in
exchange for wage cuts, a broad coalition
of unions, community groups such as the
NAACP, clergy, and progressives brought
outsome800peopleforamilitantmarch.
Embarrassed by the flood of com-
munity outrage and negative media
coverage, the corporation announced
two days later it was abandoning its
plan to move.
In at least three other cases, com-
munity opposition blocked corpora-
tions from moving out of Racine dur-
ing the early 1980s. But after Bill
Clinton pushed through the North
American Free Trade Agreement,
labor was at a loss. “I’ll never be able
to walk into the shop again and ask
workers to vote Democratic after
this,” one UAW local president said
at the time.
With the corrosion of the city’s
industrial base, Racine officials
dreamed up one economic salvation
scheme after another. Despite luring
affluent boat owners from the Chica-
go and Milwaukee suburbs, the big
publicly subsidized harbor project
failed to produce the trickle-down
effects predicted by its promoters. The
latest idea, hailed in The New York
Times, is that former factory workers
will somehow find prosperity as
Racine tries to convert itself into an
artists’ colony, replete with a new $11
million Racine Art Museum and
about a dozen galleries on Sixth Street.
But twelve galleries and a museum
will not fill the crater left by the loss of
13,500 factory jobs. Racine’s unem-
ployment rate consistently remains the
state’s highest, and many former
industrial workers have been perma-
nently demoted to low-wage, low-
benefit jobs in the service sector from
which they have little chance of rising.
For example, after Chrysler wiped out
5,500 jobs in 1988, $7 million in
public funds was spent on retraining
the workers over three years. Yet after
the retraining, 60 percent earned less
than $28,000 (in 2006 dollars) and
fully 20 percent remained jobless,
according to a study by the University
of Wisconsin-Parkside.

R

acine is not the same city my
grandparents came to or I
grew up in. It is a victim of
corporate globalization. But part of
the fighting spirit remains.
In 2004, the Racine County
Board—normally dominated by con-
servatives—voted 20-0 to call for the
state to boycott World Bank bonds.
Some Dominican nuns led the effort,
assisted by labor. Racine County AFL-
CIO Recording Secretary Ron
Thomas captured the emotion behind
the county board resolution. “There is
a beast out there called the global
economy,” he said, “and it has
devoured thousands of jobs here, and
hundreds of thousands of jobs across
the nation since NAFTA.”
Despite the loss of union jobs,
labor still retains significant political
strength. Last November, labor lob-
byist Cory Mason was elected to the
State Assembly and pro-labor pro-
gressive John Lehman took a State
Senate seat away from the Republi-
cans, even though Lehman was out-
spent $393,000 to $200,000 by his
opponent, William McReynolds. But
in this case, the checkbooks of the
CEOs were no match for the shoe-
leather of labor going door-to-door
discussing critical pocketbook issues.
Said Thomas of the AFL-CIO:
“I’ve never seen this intensity of
political activity for our candidates.”
Now that’s something my grandfa-
thers would have cheered.

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