Scott Page grew up with dreams of the good life.
He enjoyed that life, briefly, when his father's wages as a truck driver were enough to support the family. But when he was just 7, his parents divorces, and his single mother had to go on food stamps to help feed him and his brother. He remembers breakfasts of bread, sugar and milk - and nothing else.
Page wanted something better than that for himself.
“Growing up, I wanted to be a conservation warden,” says Page, now 37. He loved the outdoors. But a real-life warden who came to a career fair at Page’s high school in Kenosha talked him out of that ambition. “He told me the pay was incredibly low.”
Page came of age as Kenosha shuddered through the loss of 5,000 auto industry jobs, but the city still had scores of manufacturing companies. So Page held a succession of factory jobs – in a musical instrument factory, for a steel-polishing business, as a custom ceramic moldmaker, as a foreman for a gardening supplier, and in shipping and receiving for a music store.
Finally, he found his way to a bindery factory in the Kenosha suburb of Pleasant Prairie, where he was apprenticed as a tool and die maker. That job lasted four years, until the company was bought out in 2006.
Half of the work was moved to Mexico. The other half to China.
“I was told I could either be let go right now or work two months and train my Chinese counterpart,” Page says. Necessity bested his pride. Page stuck it out and saw his work go across the ocean firsthand.
WHAT’S HAPPENED TO THE middle class?
To judge by how often the term is invoked, the middle class has never seemed more prominent. “It’s kind of hard to argue they’re vanishing if everyone is pandering to them,” says Scott Adams, a former White House staffer and now an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The tens of thousands who rallied in Madison last winter in the vain hope of blocking newly elected Gov. Scott Walker’s rollback of public employee bargaining rights framed the struggle as one for middle-class jobs – public health nurses, highway snowplow operators, county social workers and public school teachers. Even police and firefighters – whose unions were exempted from Walker’s bill – joined the fray, suspecting they would be targeted next.
But Republicans insisted they, too, were on the side of middle America, with press releases calling public workers and their unions “special interests,” and pitting them against “Wisconsin’s middle-class families.” State Sen. Alberta Darling, a targeted Republican who narrowly survived a recall attempt, famously defended those making as much as $250,000 a year with the words, “Those aren’t wealthy people.” Meaning, presumably, they, too, are part of the middle class.
“That’s kind of a political term people throw out to get votes from people who identify themselves as middle class – which is basically everybody in the population,” Adams says. Perhaps for that reason, “Economists don’t think much of the term ‘middle class,’ ” he notes.
Statistically speaking, though, the middle class can be clearly defined. Sort the population by income and divide it into five broad bands, each with one-fifth of the population. There’s a bottom 20 percent, a top 20 percent and three groups of equal size in between: That broad group, 60 percent of the country, is the middle class.
Until the 1970s, the average income of all five bands of the population rose regularly along with the productivity of America’s economy, says economist Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C. From 1947 to 1979, the average real income (after taking inflation into account) for all five groups grew between 2.2 percent and 2.5 percent a year. All boats rose together.
But then came a virtual tidal wave of inequality. From 1979 to 2009, the poorest fifth of Americans actually saw their incomes decline by 7.4 percent. For the second-poorest fifth, incomes were flat, rising by just 3.7 percent in 30 years, and for the middle group, the increase was a modest 11.2 percent. More fortunate were the second-richest fifth of Americans, who saw their income rise by 22.7 percent. But the big winners were the richest fifth of families, who scored a whopping 49 percent increase in income.
Productivity after 1973, says Shierholz, had continued to grow, but the fruits of that labor no longer were distributed to all workers. In fact, she says, from 1973 to 2007 – both years picked because they were peaks in the business cycle – the richest 10 percent of the population got 98 percent of the growth in income.
That’s not a misprint.
Because the richest fifth of Americans already had so much wealth, their 49 percent increase in income over the last 30 years amounts to a huge pot of money, in essence accounting for nearly every dollar of new wealth made during that time.
Wisconsin had once been resistant to this trend. Historically, says Joel Rogers, director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS) at UW-Madison, this state had been “quite equal” when it came to income growth. (An important exception was the gap between blacks and whites, he notes.)
But Wisconsin has been catching up. In the 20 years from 1986 to 2006, according to a new COWS report, incomes for the bottom fifth of the state’s population rose 7.3 percent. For the middle fifth, they rose 14.1 percent. And for the top fifth, they soared by 35.6 percent.
Even more worrisome, a recent Census Bureau analysis shows that median household income in Wisconsin declined by nearly 15 percent in the last decade, much faster than the national decline of about 9 percent. In real dollars, Wisconsin’s average household saw its income drop from $57,316 in 1999 to $49,001 in 2010.
Some say the wealth gap is not as bad when the impact of health insurance is measured. A recent paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research by Richard Burkhauser and Kosali Simon, both of Cornell University, concluded that when the value of private and public health insurance is included, incomes in 2008 were no more unequal than they were in 1995.
Of course, that research concentrates on a period when health care costs were soaring. Shierholz notes that even when benefits are included for hourly workers, all compensation still has stagnated since the 1970s. Moreover, the rise in health care costs is creating a new kind of inequality: In the last decade, the percentage of people covered by employer-paid health insurance has fallen from 68 percent to 59 percent.
Why the increase in inequality?
Everyone has a pet theory. “So much is changing at the exact same time that anybody can pretty much claim they’re right,” says Adams.
Declining union strength is one likely cause. Back at their peak in the 1950s, labor unions represented around a third of the workforce, and these were mostly private sector employees. Unions bid up pay levels, and not just for workers they represented. Unionized companies also increased the pay of their nonunion, white-
collar employees to keep up with union workers. And nonunion companies often matched wages at unionized firms in order to avoid becoming targets for union organizers. All three trends kept wages rising.
But today, less than 7 percent of private sector workers in America are unionized.
Changes in world trade have also battered the middle class, as trade restrictions fell and cheaper labor markets opened up in Latin America, Asia and formerly communist Eastern Europe. American companies found it easy to export jobs to cheap-labor countries.
Then there’s technology.
Keith Bender, another UW-Milwaukee economist, says a big reason for rising incomes at the top is that these people have jobs requiring extensive education and skills – lawyers, doctors and other highly specialized occupations.
The computer revolution helped make those already well-paid people even more productive, Bender says. “That’s what caused their wages to shoot up.”
But the biggest winners are in executive suites. A recent analysis by the Washington Post found that from 1970 to 2005, corporate profits rose by 250 percent and median executive income rose 430 percent – but average worker income rose just 26 percent. That’s less than 1 percent per year.
The trend dismays John Eiden, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1473, which primarily represents grocery store clerks and meatpacking company employees. “Since the 1980s,” he says, “wages have stayed the same, and CEO pay has done nothing but increase.”
IN 1986, I ARRIVED in Milwaukee to cover labor and workplace issues for the old Milwaukee Journal. I was soon covering a fierce battle between labor and management: a strike by some 800 workers at Patrick Cudahy, where they slaughtered and butchered hogs, and turned “everything but the squeal” into ham, sausage, bacon and other cuts of meat.
At the time, the base hourly wage was $10.69, about the same as at other meatpacking plants across the country, most of which were still heavily unionized.
Citing lower-wage, nonunion competition spreading through the industry, the company demanded wage cuts. The union said no. The walkout that began just after New Year’s Day 1987 lasted more than two years.
It was the middle of winter. Fire barrels on the picket lines brought an aura of the Great Depression to early-morning confrontations with the replacement workers who soon began filing into the aging meatpacking plant. Unions boycotted the company’s products and made the walkout an emotional rallying point. Jesse Jackson, running for president in 1988 with hopes of stitching together a multiracial, pro-labor coalition, rallied on behalf of the displaced strikers.
As the dispute dragged on, the plant’s hog-slaughtering operation was permanently shuttered, and the company entered federal bankruptcy protection. Union leaders tried to muster an employee buyout, but in the end, Cudahy – owned by Virginia-based Smithfield Foods – emerged from bankruptcy intact, but minus more than 600 of the original 800 jobs. The union remained, but it was much smaller and included the replacement workers hired to break the strike. And wages had dropped by about 20 percent.
On paper, those jobs have remained, with starting pay rates now 12 percent higher at $12.01 an hour, according to Eiden, whose union represents Patrick Cudahy employees. But when you factor in 22 years of inflation, the wage has dropped drastically. In real dollars, those workers would need to earn $20.97 just to equal what they were earning back before the strike.
For the top executives of the parent company, however, pay has more than kept up with inflation. Smithfield’s proxy statements from when the strike occurred aren’t easily accessible. But a few years after it ended, in 1992, the company’s chairman and CEO, Joseph W. Luter III, earned $1.17 million in total compensation. By 2011, however, the company proxy shows his successor, Larry Pope, earned $20 million when including stock awards and deferred income.
Companies headquartered in Wisconsin have seen executive salaries rise somewhat slower. In Wisconsin, CEO pay is now 10 times higher than in 1985, while average worker pay is twice as high. Nationally, the gap is much bigger: Average pay for top CEOs is now 14.6 times higher than in 1985, while average worker pay increased 2.4 times.
Even a company such as Harley-Davidson – once a local poster child for cooperative labor relations – has won significant wage and benefit concessions from union members. A year ago, workers in Milwaukee and Tomahawk voted to approve a deal starting in 2012 that freezes their pay over seven years, cuts hundreds of jobs and turns hundreds more into short-term, low-pay, part-time positions. Yet as average worker compensation is trimmed, it keeps rising at the top: Harley-Davidson CEO Keith Wandell’s total 2010 compensation exceeded $6.4 million.
And it’s not just CEOs getting a big payday; other top officers and executives have done quite well. Add up all the compensation (including stock awards that don’t necessarily translate into immediate cash) for the top five executives at Smithfield, for instance, and the total value tops $40 million.
Some experts defend current CEO pay, noting that the pressures of global competition have made it a far more difficult job than it was back in the 1980s. The proxy statement of Johnson Controls, the state’s biggest publicly held company, says its executive compensation programs “have played a material role in our ability to drive strong financial results and attract and retain a highly experienced, successful team to manage our company.” Says Harley-Davidson: “Our compensation philosophy emphasizes pay for performance.” Smithfield’s statement notes that under CEO Pope’s leadership, its stock price rose 118 percent in 2010 and another 26 percent in 2011.
The payoff for shareholders has been significant.
WHAT WAS IT ABOUT the early 1970s that sent the rich soaring and left the rest of us behind?
No one realized it then, but that era turned out to be a technological turning point. In the early 1970s, the first personal computer – a kit named Altair aimed at brainy hobbyists – hit the market. To create an operating system for it and the machines that would follow, two smart guys set up a business called Micro-Soft – yes, the original name was hyphenated. About the same time, the first Apple computer was built – yes, in a California garage. The IBM desktop personal computer was about a decade away, but the seeds for the revolution it brought had been sown.
All this new machinery helped boost productivity, especially for professional employees, says Bender, and that boosted their salaries over time.
But other forces also played a role.
As the 1970s wore on, inflation began to spike. In those days, labor agreements often had cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) built in, effectively indexing wages to inflation. “Inflation was running up a lot of contracts. COLA costs were going up for firms,” Bender says.
So northern manufacturers looked south for cheaper labor – first to the southern states, which were more hostile to unions, and then south of the Rio Grande. “That shook the foundations of American industry. It’s really impacted lower-skilled manufacturing jobs,” Bender says.
Meanwhile, a series of trade agreements opened up imports and exports between the U.S. and Latin America, and later, the U.S. and the rest of the world. Looking back two decades, the anxiety over companies exporting jobs to Mexican factories seems positively quaint in an era when a house without products from China might seem empty.
Industrial flight inevitably winnowed union membership in the U.S. Meanwhile, some employers – places like Marquette Electronics in Milwaukee, SC Johnson in Racine and others – pursued progressive employee relations that were aimed at making unions unnecessary. But other companies were taking a tough-on-unions stance, especially after President Ronald Reagan fired and replaced government air traffic controllers for an illegal strike in 1981. All of these factors combined to drive down union membership over the rest of the 1980s.
There have been exceptions. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a collection of Wisconsin employers and unions explored new ways of working cooperatively: A.O. Smith, Mercury Marine, Chrysler’s Kenosha plant, John Deere in
Horicon, and others – of which Harley-Davidson was probably the most renowned.
Roland Walter, 54, went to work at Harley-Davidson in 1995 after working for a series of other companies. The company and its union had just signed an agreement giving them a shared role in making business decisions.
“It was a lot easier then because we couldn’t make motorcycles fast enough for a long time,” he says. The company’s profits and volume of work papered over any shortcomings in the labor-management relationship. “We never really got as involved as we thought we should be,” says Walter, now president of the United Steelworkers union local for Harley’s Milwaukee operations.
Since then, changes in corporate leadership, plummeting demand for Harley products and revenue losses led to a situation in which management was increasingly dictating terms, and the union felt compelled to submit in order to save jobs. Walter says there’s a new program to involve workers employed on the assembly line, but much of it is driven by the corporation rather than growing out of company-union teamwork.
A similar change took place at Mercury Marine, where workers grimly accepted concessions to avoid losing their jobs to a nonunion plant in Oklahoma. Elsewhere, strong cooperative arrangements weren’t enough to keep plants like A.O. Smith’s auto frame assembly plant on 35th Street or Chrysler’s factory in Kenosha from shutting down.
Meanwhile, over the last 30 years, anti-union rhetoric got bolder. “There has been a deliberate attempt on the part of business groups – the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, other business groups and their supporters, to portray labor unions as obstructionists,” says Craig Johnson, a Milwaukee labor lawyer who represents unions.
Scott Adams, though, says there is a limit to the theory that union weakness has been the cause of stagnant middle-class wages.
“In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, the decline of unions played a large role,” concedes Adams, who worked as a White House economic adviser in the last year of the George W. Bush administration and first year of the Barack Obama administration. Yet that stagnation continued through the ’90s and onward. “In the Bush administration, median incomes actually fell,” he observes. “And there was not a dramatic change in unionization over that time.”
Like Bender, Adams believes the biggest cause of the rising wealth gap is the premium paid for certain highly technical and professional jobs. But it’s not just their use of technology, he contends. Rather, the marketplace has bid up the value of a collection of “soft skills” – broadly, skills entailing problem-solving and collaboration. “The technological change that has occurred over the last 10 years is complementary to those skills,” Adams says.
LAURA PEART WAS THE first in her family to go to college.
Peart, 46, grew up in St. Francis. Her father owned his own business as an industrial photographer. That business ultimately failed, but her dad found other work, selling appliances and carpeting for Sears – “back when Sears was a big deal,” Peart says.
Her parents’ marriage broke up when she was 16, and Peart hit some rocky times, dropping out of high school just short of the credits needed to graduate. But she returned at age 20 and crossed the stage to collect her diploma when she turned 21, then went on to UW-Milwaukee, starting out with a deaf education major before switching to mainstream education.
“I did not come from a family that could help out,” she says, but Pell Grants helped her keep college costs down. Completing her degree in seven years as a part-time student, she graduated with just $10,000 in debt. After 11 years teaching English to middle school students, Peart shifted to Bay View High School, where she still teaches.
As recently as the 1960s, teachers were poorly paid in Wisconsin. But the advent of strong union leadership inexorably raised salaries and benefits at public schools, forcing private and parochial schools to up their salaries and benefits in order to compete. Even as unions in the private sector began to decline, public employee unions in America were prospering.
Although Peart had a strong desire to teach, the job’s union-won benefits also figured in her choice of careers: “I knew I wasn’t going to make as much as my friends, but there was security. Across the country, the rules were the same. My retirement would be secure and my health care would be secure. That’s what everyone thought growing up – right?”
Not anymore. Peart and her fellow Milwaukee teachers have avoided the steeper concessions on benefits that Walker’s bill imposed on most other public employees, because the school district and teachers union had already signed a new four-year agreement, freezing salaries, replacing their prescription benefits with a lower-cost plan and requiring teachers to contribute to their health insurance. The more drastic Walker provisions won’t take effect until that agreement expires in 2014.
Experts argue over the question of whether public sector workers earn more than their private sector counterparts. The difficulty is determining what is a comparable job. Public sector jobs may pay less in salary, but they typically offer much better benefits. Indeed, more and more private employers are slashing their health insurance plans.
Peart readily acknowledges that, compared to private sector benefits, “we’ve got it good.” Still, she feels like the rules she relied on have changed. And she’s not sure what to tell her 18-year-old son about his own career choices.
“He’s a brilliant kid,” she says. “He wants to work with his hands – to be in a trade.” But with the uncertain economy, “I don’t feel qualified to counsel my son one way or another.”
In Milwaukee’s black community, the change is even more dramatic. Mark Carter, a Milwaukee police officer, grew up in a solid middle-class neighborhood around 24th Street and Ruby Avenue. His father was a manager at Harnischfeger, the old-line crane manufacturer, and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. They were stern disciplinarians.
As a young adult, he found work for a landscaping company. Later, he joined the police force, patrolled a beat at Burleigh and Holton, and volunteered with the Police Athletic League to coach neighborhood kids. Now 50, he’s been running the league for 12 years as a full-time assignment. All four of his children are either in college or college-bound.
Yet in his neighborhood, he worries about youngsters who no longer have even the bottom rung for a ladder out of poverty. “Back in the ’70s, we could leave a job and find another in the same day,” he says. “Make a mistake back then, and it wouldn’t live with you for the rest of your life.”
Some do make it out. Antoine Harries, 25, grew up under his grandmother’s care. “I was always pushed,” he says. Even so, he fell in with gangs as a teen, then pulled himself out and attended UW-Whitewater, graduating with a degree in social work and a minor in coaching. Harries hoped to make a career as a high school counselor, but graduating in 2008 as the economy was tanking – and not having a required master’s degree – forced him to forestall that ambition. Today, he is a teen program director for Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, works part-time as a security guard, and on weekends, he tries to build a musical recording and performance business.
With the responsibilities of caring for two daughters and one stepdaughter, all under the age of 6, Harries tries to put on a brave face.
“I’m still optimistic,” he says. “But I’m still searching for my career. My daughters – they keep me inspired, because I want them to have a good life.”
IN THE EARLY 1960S, Michael Cudahy founded Marquette Electronics, which would become a tremendously successful health technology company. Cudahy was a leader in creating good benefits and working conditions for employees, and his company was never unionized. Cudahy’s 10 rules for how to run a business included a maxim to give away lots of stock to workers. In his autobiography, Cudahy said he gave away a third of his company’s stock to employees. (“Even the floor sweeper has stock,” he wrote.) By the time he sold his company in 1998, 57 employees had more than $500,000 apiece in stock.
Much of the increase in the wealth of a company’s executives has come in the form of stock options. But little of that trickles down to other workers. A 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey found just 9 percent of all private sector employees have stock options. Some have suggested spreading this wealth – after all, don’t all employees contribute to a company’s success? – but problems can arise. The classic example was Enron, whose workers saw their stock options become worthless. While access to stock options could help buttress the middle class, an employee retirement plan that depends only on company stock rather than more diverse investments can be problematic.
Rogers, of COWS, points to strategies used in Europe. For instance, to keep more people employed, companies cut hours instead of laying off workers; the reduced-hour employees can collect a partial unemployment compensation to make up for lower salaries at work. Education and job training, including university education, is more heavily funded. Rates of pay tend to be less stratified. Indeed, German unions in particular, Rogers notes, pursued a course of “taking wages out of competition across large numbers of workers – and then disciplined workers not to make the excess demands.” Support for work-family balance is far more comprehensive in Europe as well.
All of those approaches have helped maintain a more secure middle class. But the common critique of Europe’s broad social safety net is that it has been purchased at the cost of higher unemployment. “It’s just not true,” says Rogers. A new Labor Department report covering the years 2007-2011 shows that the U.S. typically had higher unemployment than countries like Germany, Sweden, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. And a recent study by the International Monetary Fund found that countries with more income equality have more sustained economic growth. “Helping raise the smallest boats may keep the tide rising for all craft, big and small,” the report finds.
Rogers’ think tank advocates a robust government strategy to help create highly skilled, better-paying jobs in emerging industries like clean energy and mass transit. But Gov. Walker has shown little interest in this: He killed a proposed new passenger rail line linking Milwaukee and Madison even before he took office, and subsequently has sought to impose steep new location restrictions on wind farms.
Milwaukee investment banker Sheldon Lubar recently turned heads with an op-ed piece in the Journal Sentinel that promoted a New Deal-like solution: ending virtually all U.S. military presence overseas and redirecting the nation’s resources into rebuilding its infrastructure and hiring the unemployed.
In an interview with Milwaukee Magazine, Lubar also stressed the need to return manufacturing to U.S. shores. How? By cutting trade and budget deficits, he says, and by reforming the tax code in ways that would encourage more investment in the U.S.
Still, Lubar adds, to a certain extent, income inequality is inevitable: “There are always educated people, entrepreneurial people, that make a lot more money than most everyone else,” he says. “The real solution is education. Somebody without a high school education is really at a huge disadvantage, unless he wants to live on the same income as a Chinese worker.”
That message isn’t getting through strongly enough, Bender argues. “You have to explain how important good skills are – and not just specific skills, such as computer literacy. If you want to place yourself in the upper part of the distribution, you need to have skill sets. Education and skills are even more important than they were in the past.”
Yet even education doesn’t quite explain the growing wealth gap. Wages for college graduates have been flat since 2000, notes a report by Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute. And a recent New York Times story points out that education levels are about the same among the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, yet the growth in wealth is concentrated in just the wealthiest 1 percent.
Union leader John Eiden contends that making unions stronger is still the key solution. But a long-anticipated federal law that would have made organizing easier died when Democrats still controlled both house of Congress. And Walker’s bill curtailing most collective bargaining rights has, in a stroke, gutted some of the most robust unions in Wisconsin.
Adams says it’s one thing to imagine a renewed unionized sector and another thing to actually implement it. “We’ve been without unions for so long, it’s unclear what you would see. And it’s unclear what employer reaction would be.”
Indeed, the economy is changing so quickly that it may evade any easy solution, says Bender. The wealth gap, he says, “is not necessarily the fault of government or policy or politics. A lot of it has to do with the speed at which things happen now [compared to] 30, 40 or 50 years ago. It’s really difficult to set up a policy that says, ‘These are the jobs of the future,’ and to train workers for them. Now, the future is two generations ahead of where they thought.”
Adams contends that a certain amount of inequality is inevitable and even helpful: “You want to create some incentives for people to work hard and invest in their education.”
But is there a tipping point at which the inequality is so great that it harms the public good? Even Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, perhaps the nation’s most well known opponent of government economic interventions, has conceded a problem. While promoting his plan in 2005 to transform Social Security into a system based on private investment accounts, he framed it as a tool to reduce economic inequality: “It would be a good thing if we narrowed the gap between the rich and the poor and disseminated more broadly the wealth in this country,” Ryan said.
Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, reinforces that sentiment. “You can’t survive with a few at the top and then a vast chasm in terms of income and wealth,” he says.
The chasm is wider than most Americans realize. A paper published this past spring by Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University surveyed Americans, asking them first to estimate the current distribution of wealth in the U.S. and then to suggest what they thought it should be.
The results were striking. Respondents “dramatically underestimated the current level of wealth inequality,” the study noted. Most people thought the richest fifth of the U.S. population owned less than 60 percent of the nation’s wealth; the real answer is 84 percent. And they thought the bottom three-fifths of Americans owned a little more than 20 percent of the wealth. In fact, it’s less than 5 percent.
When asked for their ideal distribution, respondents, on average, considered it a “fair” distribution for the top fifth to own about 30 percent, the bottom fifth about 10 percent, and the middle three-fifths the remaining 60 percent.
These attitudes cut across lines of age, race and wealth: “All demographic groups,” Norton and Ariely wrote, “even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution such as Republicans and the wealthy – desired a more equal distribution of wealth.”
EVER SINCE SCOTT PAGE trained a Chinese citizen how to do the tool and die job at the bindery factory five years ago, his work life has echoed a Bruce Springsteen song: One step forward, two steps back.
Unemployed for nearly two years, he finally got a job at Snap-on in Milwaukee. He was assigned to be a “floater,” a sort of jack of all trades. He trained other workers. “I worked there one month short of one year,” he says. Then in late 2008, as the Wall Street crash loomed, Page was laid off.
This past spring, he found work again, this time at a metal stamping factory. As with many factory jobs these days, Page had to start out by going through a temporary help service. When he reached 90 days, he would qualify to go directly on the company payroll. Page says everyone told him he was a shoe-in for that job.
Eighty-seven days in, one summer night, the temp service called him at home.
The factory had canceled the contract.
Erik Gunn is a contributing editor for Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.