Let’s Be Honest: Why Blue Collar Trades Are Suffering In America

Many business owners and educators are wondering today, why are working class trades failing in America? Is it simply because of the old cliche that a generation is simply “too lazy” or “stuck in their phones”?

I’d like to introduce myself. I’m a new tradesmen in the auto industry. I am a 24 year old American. I went to a vocational high school in 2010, and then went on to a community college where I got associates through collision repair. I now have a college degree, and could have transferred credits to receive a bachelors degree at any state school in the country.

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Collision Repair Instructor teaching students frame repair at Nashua Community College in 2018.

I went onto work right out of college. Here are the realities of trades today. I got up at 5:30am and drove an hour commute where I paid a $3 toll twice a day. I was working 10 hours days, and was laid off after three months because business was slow. It took me another year to find another job that was offering free training for apprenticeships so I could gain more experience. I was collecting unemployment. I was immediately hired when I found one, and I continue to work 12 hours every day including some weekends. That job lasted seven months and then the cycle continued.

Should Collision Repairers Unionize? — Body Shop Business

In both jobs out of college I was making $8–10/hour, no direct deposit, no healthcare, no paid holidays, no pensions or retirement plan. I was given no guarantee that I wouldn’t be laid off at anytime when business got slow, and as a mechanic or bodyman you are required to buy thousands of dollars worth of tools that are no longer a tax deduction as of 2018. Every time you go to work at a new shop, you have to spend $500 on “UHAUL’ing” your tools and tool carts back and fourth. I go through hundreds of dollars of clothes every month since most shops don’t pay for uniforms anymore, and have to take showers 3 times a day. This is me below in the back of a UHAUL. You got to love what you do if you are in the trades today.

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The reason there is a shortage of qualified workers in the trades, is you can make twice as much right now working at Starbucks serving coffee. The reality is for your first 5–10 years on the job in this economy you’re not going to be making $40/hour. You will make less than a cashier or bagger, or a dishwasher or bus boy at a restaurant that dropped out of high school. No offense to those jobs, they pay better and you’re smart for taking them.

Decline Of Workers Unions (1978–Today):

What happened to the America strike? I really do believe that a major contributor in the decline in the popularity of trades as a career was the decline of labor unions. The decline of union power and members in the last fifty years. Workers union membership in the United States is at an all time low, and is the lowest of any developed nation. Nations in Europe regularly have a membership rate of 70–90%. It’s much more difficult to get laid off in other parts of the world, where as in the United States they don’t have to give you any warning and they don’t have to give you a reason. Canada is pretty low on the scale as well which have also seen a decline in union power, but they also have much larger welfare standards.

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There was once a time when union workers for hourly wage earners or what are called trades made up close to 50% of the private sector workforce. In states where huge manufacturing took place in the Midwest and New England and West Coast it was even higher. Unions built our cities and highways and bridges. They were once the foundation of America. The common argument you hear today is that workers unions destroy workforce productivity, but today they only make up less than 6% of the private sector so that can’t be the case. We have to look harder at what is going on.

After the Industrial Revolution and the Great Depression, we got together and said we don’t want starvation wages. We want to protect workers rights, and demand that companies hire union workers. This used to be common in the last century, for contracts in cities that a shop had to hire union help. It was called collective bargaining. You had a right to go on strike without getting fired if you didn’t feel you were getting paid enough, and workers who did not join a union were known as scabs. We really don’t see that anymore. You got out of high school, you were trained in a union and put right on a company line with on the job training provided through the union. The old motto was, 80% of life is just showing up.

“I worked on the assembly line at the GM Arlington plant back in ‘74–’77 while going to the local community college. The summer job was posted on the school jobs bulletin board, paying $4.75 ($26) an hour, so I made a beeline to the plant to apply “ — Judy Leuty.

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Young worker pounding rubber mallet on GM Detroit assembly line in 1954. (NFB/Getty Images)

What Happened to Training On the Job by Employers?

Ford used to do this in Detroit. It was not uncommon to find high school students working on assembly lines with no experience and making a decent living. Enough of a living to be able to afford a modest size home and raise a family during the baby boom. To eventually retire making company pensions from Ford and GM that were negotiated by unions. A person could expect to keep their same job for their entire life. Union workers cannot get laid off and rarely fired, only relocated to different plants. What happened?

“I quit being a tech a long time ago due to changes in the industry. When I was hired originally in the 1970’s it was 50/50 of billed labor. By 1983 I was ASE master working at Georgia dealership (no longer 50/50 but great money) making $13.50 an hour, but could turn 100+ hours in a week due to gravy services if I made a deal with service writer to work late a couple of nights a week and handle a few painful warranty jobs no one wanted. Yes some other techs complained about the work I got, but they would not stay late and do the warranty. The world changed around 1990 and flat rate did not keep up with shop rate, warranty times were cut and I was down to mid 40 hour range a week and quit the dealership and went to independent shop and things improved a bit was back to 50 hours a week. Unfortunately the independent shops in the area saw a slow down in work in the mid 90’s so back to dealership and even worse than before. By the time I walked away from the automotive field in 2000 I could not consistently even turn 35 hours a week. I made more in 1984 as a mechanic than I did 15 years later in 1999 and that was in actual money not adjusted, that is how badly today’s blue collar tradesmen are being screwed compared to the 1970's.” — Rick Martin (Atlanta, GA)

So who was the first President to really go after the working man? That would be the 39th President James Earl Carter. The UAW and the Teamsters truckers union endorsed him at the Iowa convention in 1976. They were a big reason why he won the primary and White House.

It’s because he campaigned on two pieces of legislation in the form of labor reform. He said he was going to do two things. One he promised to repeal the Taft–Hartley Act that weakened unions rights to strike if a repeal reached his desk. He then said he would push for a guaranteed jobs bill that would give Americans the right to sue their government if they were not given a job. Of course this never came to fruition.

Jimmy Carter had other priorities. He would focus on what he knew best which was peace relations such as the crisis in Panama and the environment. By the time Humphrey–Hawkins Act reached the President’s desk, it contained no language to strengthen unions or would include any job rights initiatives for working class Americans. Carter chose not to fight for this language that was pushed by UAW and Teamsters Union.

During his presidency he reigned over deregulation only Reagan could dream of. First in 1978 when Jimmy Carter pledged to deregulate the airline industry with the Airlines Deregulation Act, because many believed it would increase competition. In the year 2020, three airlines control 80% of the flight routes.

Did deregulating the airlines work?

“Yes, airline fares were low for many years, and the airline companies became more efficient. However, thousands of employees lost their jobs or were forced into lower wages by two-tier wage systems. Some of the employees’ pensions were eliminated by bankruptcy and were put into the Pension Benefit and Guarantee Corporation, a government-run insurance program that takes over pension plans of bankrupt companies.” — Industry Week

It would setup the environment that would make it possible for Ronald Reagan to fire 11,345 union workers at our airports. Reagan was the leader of union busting, but Jimmy Carter did it first and not in a small way.

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General Motors workers picketing outside a Detroit G.M. plant in 1970. (Bettmann/Getty)

In 1981 thought it was perhaps the nail in the coffin. Carter pushed to deregulate the trucking industry to save on gas mileage and costs for the consumer during an energy crisis and recession. Motor Carrier Act of 1980 removed the authority of trucking routes from Department Of Transportation that previously stated that truckers had to pass through cities and small towns on Route 66, and loosened laws for carriers that said they had to hire truckers supplied by the Teamsters. 1981 was a huge shock.

Truckers Feel the Burn of Deregulation : Unfettered competition helps some firms, but workers pay the price in lost wages, benefits.

Although the new deregulation was set to increase competition it did the exact opposite. Between 1981–1990, over 2,000 carrier companies went out of business. Between 1981–1990, truck drivers saw a 27% decrease in wages and union membership dropped from 50% to 20%. Since 1990 to present day, 43, 863 trucking companies have gone bankrupt as they struggled to survive with the lowest bidder in a desperate economy.

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Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy, left, greets President Jimmy Carter on Aug. 28, 1980, at a Boston airport.

Carter showed strong job growth and growing wages towards the end of his presidency, but his deregulation allowed an era of Reaganomics to usher in a new time period of record high union busting operations across the country. In fact Carter had a history of busting unions himself which you can read about in an article below. This compounded with record high interest rates that did not fair well for small businesses. Between 1979 and 1985 one-third of America’s high-technology union machine-tool factories were permanently shut down, and there was a close-down of a similar percentage of other capital-intensive industries throughout America’s industrial heartland.

The Decline of Unions: President Jimmy Carter, The Union Buster

So it would be of no surprise that UAW and Teamsters would endorse farther left Teddy Kennedy in the 1980 Democratic primaries, who also promised to fight for a national healthcare bill over Carter’s more conservative approach. This ultimately led to many union leaders switching sides to Reagan as a voice for working class America when Carter was renominated at a bitter convention. Reagan attracted the “silent majority”that Jimmy gave away.

Heading into the 1980’s corporations started working around unions by offering corporate pensions instead. Prior to that workers paid union dues so that they would get union pensions when they retire. However towards the end of the 20th century many workers realized that companies were being rather dishonest when it came time to collect their pensions, and corporate America shifted to 401K’s in stock that directly benefited the company they own instead of paying a percentage of a person’s salary every month to the employer. There is no guarantee your stock will hold up by the time you retire. Almost every manufacturing plant in the United States hired union workers at one point that guaranteed union pensions.

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What’s a defined benefit plan?

During the 1980’s we saw a huge decline of labor union participation force. If anyone remembers Reagan firing the air traffic controllers for going on strike. That was a major turning point, that followed many anti-union laws. The attitude was changed in this country. Collective bargaining was no longer federally protected, and in 2019 we have 27 states outright banning it in the private sector. It’s called “right-to-work” states, which bans companies from signing contracts with unions. Majority happen to be Republican controlled states, which is ironic because many conservatives blame illegal labor for taking away jobs. In “Right To Work” states, illegal immigrants have the right to work around unions. Doesn’t that go against the conservative motto that got Donald Trump into the White House?

Supreme Court ruled in 2018 in Janus v. AFSCME that forcing employees to join workers unions was against the first amendment. Overruling a previous court decision in 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.

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ANALYSIS: Are Unions Really Weaker in Right-to-Work States?

25 states ban public sector collective bargaining on public projects…

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2011 United States public employee protests — Wikipedia

In 12 states there are restrictions written into legislation that prevent public sector employees from going on strike. That is opposite of a free market.

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In reality there are only 9 states left that have no laws on the book that are weakening the right to collective bargaining in the private sector. Only two states Hawaii and Maryland actively promote collective bargaining. I truly believe if that American workers had stronger bargaining rights like in the past and like that exist in other developed nations, more of the next generation would join the trades. No one wants to pay money to go to a trade school, only to come out with no permanent job security and making bottom dollar. If a student could join a workers union and demand good wages and training with a steady retirement pension adequate to buy a home and support a family in 2020, more would want to participate in high skilled trades. Many argue that middle class share of wealth have been directly proportionate to the decline of union membership.

It’s even being argued on it’s way to the Supreme Court again, after a West Virginia judge shot down language in their right-to-work laws. On a first amendment basis that, companies should be able to hire only union workers. Should companies have the right to refuse scabs?

Can the Courts Strike Down Right-to-Work?

The Act also banned solidarity activism — or what the law dryly refers to as “secondary activity” — that is, the right of workers to extend a workplace dispute to a company that is not their direct employer but is nevertheless essential to their employer’s business. This, too, is finally being challenged by unions as an unconstitutional restriction on First Amendment rights.

Global Trade Deals Lowering Wages:

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President Bill Clinton promotes NAFTA on campaign trail in November, 1993. (Jeffrey Markowitz/Getty)

In 1971 Richard Nixon would open global trade with China for the first time. However at the time the United States still had a fair amount of tariffs and protective labor laws in place which still ensured unions. For example in 1976 it was more economical for Apple to manufacture all of their computers in the United States until 1992 after Steve Jobs was fired. The New York Times even admits that manufacturing ended at Apple because of lack of sales. In other words Apple could make more money manufacturing in China, and that is what happened under CEO John Sculley.

This was not just the story of computers, it was the story in big part of automobiles in the United States. Detroit is sort of a buzz term for the golden age of manufacturing, but in reality there used to be a Detroit in every part of the country. Massachusetts was a great example, who used to manufacture more cars for General Motors and Ford than Detroit. Leominster Massachusetts used to be called the “city of plastic”.

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Employees at Framingham GM assembly plant celebrate the 4 millionth vehicle in 1988.

Weakening union protections allowed the American economy access to global trade. Now that companies are not forced to negotiate through collective bargaining to operate in the United States, a good chunk of the manufacturing and trades jobs that existed in the past moved overseas. The labor is drastically cheaper over there, with no workers benefits they have to pay and weaker environmental laws. In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed NAFTA into law, and in 2000 he signed PNTR (Permanent Trade Relations With China). For the first time this opened up unfettered outside competition where wages were extremely lower. So the power that collective bargaining once had in the United States weakened with global trade by the lifting of tariffs, even though it may have brought prices down.

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https://www.usitc.gov/publications/332/pub1203.pdf

UAW lost all bargaining power. We went from 6% in 1964 to 40% of automobiles made overseas in 2020. In my opinion, the trades are worse off if they have to compete with $2–4 minimum wages and no healthcare infrastructure with overseas competition. We are doing a disservice to third world nations by hiring cheap labor. These trade deals are also written by some of the most powerful corporations in America and around the world.

BMW Is Committed to Mexico Factory, Despite Trump’s Tax Threats

Ford, GM don’t make the most ‘American-made’ car. Here’s who does.

Candidate Donald Trump promised to pass new trade deals by terminating NAFTA within his first week in office. He also promised to get tough on corporations by “forcing” Apple to manufacture iPhones in America and breaking with China’s influence. This actually never happened, and as it turns out the new trade deal could be even worse for workers.

China could purchase much less U.S. farm product than thought, new USDA estimate suggests

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief economist, Robert Johansson, projected that agricultural exports to China would reach roughly $14 billion in the year that ends Sept. 30, a $4 billion increase from one year ago. But that amount would still fall far short of what White House officials said would take place based on the recently announced “Phase One” trade deal with Chinese leaders. White House officials have said agricultural exports to China would be between $40 billion and $50 billion in each of the next two years. Last year, when he was promising the trade deal would lead to a huge increase in purchases, Trump told farmers to buy “more land” and “bigger tractors.” — Washington Post

US labor unions say NAFTA replacement doesn’t go far enough for workers

Sounds like getting tough on corporations…

Trump promised new trade policy might be worse than the old one

“Certainly, the new coalition of 200 corporations and business lobby groups, including Citibank, the American Petroleum Institute and the American Farm Bureau Federation, that just launched a campaign to push Trump’s renegotiated North American trade deal through Congress doesn’t seem to think that there’s anything new in the deal that threatens business-as-usual.” — Washington Post

What we have are trade deals that are written to protect corporate interests instead of the interest of working Americans. I have not been invited to write any legislation. The last President to work with labor unions was Richard Nixon who passed OSHA in 1970.

Decline Of Trade School Education:

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Students learn woodworking in 1974 American middle school. (Getty Images)

Anyone who went to public school up until the 1980’s remembers, we had many different required curriculum classes that everyone was forced to take. Home economics (cooking), sewing, mechanic, civics, wood working, astronomy, choir, jazz improv, typography, engineering, just to name a few.

In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed the “Improving America’s Schools Act” (IASA) which received bipartisan support. For the first time the federal government said a public school would be required to give 6 high-stakes standardized tests in order to receive funding from grades 3–12. For the first time the federal government was influencing curriculum by what programs would receive the most funding. For the first time tests would not be graded by a human teacher in your classroom, but by a computer robot on the other side of the country. The early 1990’s was the beginning of the decline of funding for the arts and what we now call “extra curriculum”.

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President George Bush signing “No Child Left Behind Act” January 28th, 2002.

This was expanded in 2002 when George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind Act(NCLB), which rose the number of required tests from 6 to 14. NCLB also adopted a federal teacher evaluation for the first time, that based a teacher’s existence on published test scores. If you attended school between 2002 and 2015 and noticed new teachers that did not have tenure frequently leaving, this was why. If a teacher scored well, they were promoted with incentivized pay raises and gifts from Department Of Education. In 2009 President Obama signed “Race To The Top” initiative which further provided subsidies for high score testing schools during the recession when schools were desperate for any funding and willing to cut programs such as trades.

What about large testing companies like Pearson and McGraw Hill? If you attended school after 2001, you would notice your textbooks were written by the testing companies themselves. You were in fact being taught to the test. In 2018 Pearson revenue was $680.8 million dollars, and McGraw Hill pulled in a revenue of $1.6 billion. Before NCLB these companies were non existent. From 1998 to 2009 Pearson profits rose almost 200%. Pearson now controls 80% of the market after buying out textbook companies. If you wanted your school to get good test score, you had to teach to the test. So it is a fact that the curriculum provided in public schools today does have a profit incentive controlled by a few multinational companies. Is this a good thing?

This is 100% factual because in 2015, the government admitted they had signed a flawed bill that allowed multinational corporations to take local control away from education and cut funding for trades. In 2015 before leaving office President Obama repealed No Child Left Behind, and replaced it with what is now called Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This bill did two big things. It removed federal teacher evaluations based on testing scores, and it removed the language that said a school could be shut down if it did not score high enough. Again this is not my biased opinion. However, testing requirements are still put in place across the country.

Common core has not improved testing scores, but it has completely removed the priority on other fields of studies that are not tested for.

US students slipped from being ranked 18th in the world in math in 2000 to 40th in 2015, and from 14th to 25th in science and from 15th to 24th in reading.” — National Center for Education Statistics

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Parking lot of Pearson Educational Institution in Cranbury, New Jersey.

Private schools in this matter are far different, unlike public schools private schools are free to choose their own tests and have more freedom when it comes to writing their own curriculum. Also there are some holdouts. As of 2019, Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska, Indiana and South Carolina have never adopted common core standards.

Remember anyone that shoots down the public education system of the past, you have to put things into historical perspective. America’s education system of the 20th century sent a man to the moon, invented electricity, television, radio, and cultivated some of the greatest musicians and artists this world has ever known. We were #1 in math and science just fifty years ago. In 2018 America was #38 in math and #24 in science. Were we better off with a greater local control over our education system?

School guidance councilors will tell students today that college is the only option, offering scholarship opportunities and free tours on campuses. That is great if your passion is for law school or medical school or business school. However it leaves little room for anything else in life.

Trade Jobs Sit Empty, While High School Grads Line Up For University

“All through my life my school told me, ‘if you don’t go to college you’re going to end up on the streets“ Morgan said.

I think common core was based on a genuine concern for decline in math and english, and many companies just happened to take advantage of this concern in a way that had a negative impact. Consequences that politicians did not see would happen if we took away local control. There are proponents of common core to this day, but both sides can agree that standardized testing drastically changed the way we look at public education. You also have to remember it’s not testing companies that influence education, it’s the Department Of Education because state and local budget cuts demand greater funding. I tried to keep this article as factual as possible. It’s the truth that common core has been recognized to have many flaws that need reforming going forward to the future. Here are some great articles to read below about this.

Why We Desperately Need To Bring Back Vocational Training In Schools

The Death Of Shop Class And America’s Skilled Workforce

THEN AND NOW: 6 classes US public schools rarely offer anymore — and what they’ve been replaced with

My Take / Opinion:

It is often speculated that a new generation of workers simply don’t want to participate in this economy, or that they don’t want to get their hands dirty like their grandfathers once did. I’m here to tell you that it is not “laziness”, “lack of common sense”, or “weak muscles” that are the problem.

Workers want to make above starvation wages so they can buy a home and raise a family. So they can participate in the American dream. Nothing will change until we as a nation begin standing up for our rights in the workplace once again. The news reports that unemployment is down and wages are up. What about unemployment rates and wages for Americans with only a high school education or less? As you can tell I do support the idea of collective bargaining. There is corruption in workers unions, but federal and state government busts unions instead of bailing them out. If the federal government treated unions like they do Wall Street, they would be just as powerful. Did we bail out unions during the 2009 recession or did we bail out the largest corporate institutions in the country?

Bureau of Labor Statistics

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As of right now, public sector jobs like doctors in public hospitals and public teachers and law enforcement are more lucrative because pensions never disappeared in those positions. So, I don’t really blame a lot of students for not wanting to enter manual labor trades in the 21st century. You can make a lot better living a lot faster going the college route, and this is coming from someone who loves the trades. If you love it go for it, but just know the economy is not supporting manual labor right now no matter what Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs may say. It will take a long time in the trades to make a decent living because you are competing against very desperate people that are willing to take bottom dollar and the lowest bid.

Something needs to drastically change if we want to attract a new generation of workers. At a time when wealth inequality is larger than at any point in American history, no one is going to want to start a career in a brutally fatiguing job that barely pays minimum wage out of trade school. Unions led to higher craftsmanship, rather than to the lowest bidder. This has affected construction projects as well. It’s no coincidence that America’s infrastructure is crumbling at the exact same time that wages are falling.

https://www.latimes.com/projects/la-fi-construction-trump/

Journeymen electricians might be the exception in certain parts of the country. They still seem to retain a large union membership with an average 2020 salary of $35/hour in many states with union pensions, and apprenticeships through the union across the country. They call themselves the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and many are contracted through public utilities. You can’t say the same about carpenters, machinists, truckers, mechanics, roofers, masons, landscapers, or construction workers and many other trades. United Brotherhood of Carpenters have more than half the membership rate and has seen a decline in the last two decades as illegal labor has been really exploited.

I’ve attached news article to read throughout this article from respected news organizations such as New York Times, New Yorker, Washington Post, Forbes, Bloomberg, WSJ, and NPR to read about this interesting argument. There are two sides to the debate on the solutions to the problem, but no one is debating that collective bargaining is not good for middle class wages. It really was. Consider next Labor Day why we have weekends and the eight hour work day plus overtime across the country. Things we take for granted today we are beginning to lose.

The Rise and Fall of Labor Unions in the U.S.

The Silent Generation, “The Lucky Few” (Part 3 of 7)

Written by

Independent writer outside of Boston.

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