PHOTOS AND TEXT BY BARBARA J. MINER
For the better part of a century, Milwaukee rightly deserved the title “Machine Shop of the World.” Manufacturing businesses employed tens of thousands of people, and the Pabst, Miller and Schlitz breweries “made Milwaukee famous.”
Beginning in the late 1970s, however, companies shipped jobs to nonunion plants in the South, and then overseas, setting off huge changes to Milwaukee and its economy. Many factories were replaced with strip malls, office buildings or apartments, and family-supporting union jobs with low-wage, part-time work.
The portraits that follow are part of my multimedia project, Shadows of Industrialization, which stems from my longstanding attempt to understand the complexities of Milwaukee. I came of age during the open housing marches in the 1960s and hopeful advances in ending Jim Crow. I left for almost two decades and returned to raise my children but found it was not the city of my youth. Deindustrialization had deep effects; for example, it helped propel Milwaukee from one of the best places in the country to raise an African American family, to one of the worst. White flight and freeway mania, meanwhile, had sharply heightened the region’s segregation.
Know an individual or group committed to bridging divides in our community? Nominate them for a Unity Award by Oct. 31.
Shadows of Industrialization centers on contemporary photographs and audio interviews with former industrial workers and current workers in service industries. Because the project is also the story of Milwaukee, the portraits were taken in locations that speak to the region’s history – from Allis-Chalmers in West Allis, now primarily a shopping center, to the empty, rubble-strewn parking lots of the former A.O. Smith in the central city.
We live in an era of uncertainty, and the way forward is not clear. I think back to my interview with Anthony Rainey, recently retired as a union rep for the United Auto Workers. “We can’t make any advances alone,” he said. “But we can help each other make advances together. It takes time and it takes effort. Nothing worthwhile is easy.”
“I’m hopeful for Milwaukee’s future. If you’re not hopeful, what’s the point? It’s going to be challenging. But there are a lot of people, young and old, born and raised here, that care about the city.”
– Anthony Rainey
Anthony Rainey recently retired as the international servicing rep for the United Auto Workers, which represents Molson Coors workers. Before that, he worked at Master Lock for 23 years.
“When I came out of high school in 1970, the only thing you had to worry about was getting drafted. If not, your future was yours.”
– Jesse Barnes
Jesse Barnes put in 30 years in the auto industry. The site of the AC Delco-Delphi plant in Oak Creek where he worked is now Drexel Town Square.
“I wish young people had the opportunity that my generation in Milwaukee had – the highest standard of living for Black people in this nation. You need to understand the magnitude of what it meant when people took those middle-class jobs away.”
– Earl Ingram Jr.
Earl Ingram Jr. worked at A.O. Smith for 34 years.
“I come from a family of 11, and we did not have money. My father was a blue-collar worker, and college was just not in the picture for me. And factory jobs paid well.”
– Debra T.
Debra T. worked 13 years at Continental Can before being laid off as part of a company scheme to deny workers their pension benefits.
“Working in the auto industry gave us dignity in the workplace. Today, unions have been denigrated. But I see organizing coming back.”
– Bill Lietzke
Bill Lietzke (left), Ron Suminski (center) and Nicholas Romano worked in the auto industry for more than 30 years, mostly at the Chrysler plant on Milwaukee’s South Side.
“It wasn’t easy work. But when you were done, you could look at what you did and really have pride in the skill that it took.”
– Susan Lunsford
Susan Lunsford worked at Allis-Chalmers from 1977-86 and at A.O. Smith from 1987-92.
“My father worked at American Motors from the time he was 18 or 19 until the time he died. So working in the industry in Milwaukee was natural. I had to jump around to a bunch of jobs because of layoffs. Once NAFTA was passed, there was a mass exodus of jobs to other countries. It was sort of like being on the Titanic.”
– Sue Silverstein
Sue Silverstein worked at Kearney and Trecker and Allen-Bradley (Rockwell Automation). In 2022, she retired after teaching welding for 25 years with the Wisconsin Technical College System.
See More Shadows
Portraits and audio clips from Shadows of Industrialization will be at the INOVA Gallery from April 28 to May 19, in conjunction with an exhibition by graduating students in UW-Milwaukee’s Master of Fine Arts program. INOVA is in UWM’s Kenilworth Square East, 2155 N. Prospect Ave.