Manufacturing Offered Opportunity for Black Workers Like E.J. Jenkins, But Inequalities Persist

By Jeffrey Bonior
Jun 18 2020 |
A factory job gave E.J. Jenkins the chance to build a modest but happy life for himself and two children. But economic inequalities and racial divisions have meant that many young Black men are no longer being offered similar opportunities, he says. | Photos courtesy E.J. Jenkins

The steelworker from Gary, Ind., reflects on the challenges facing Black workers and his community.

At the age of 22, E.J. Jenkins followed the career path that thousands of other young Black men from Gary, Ind., had taken during the 20th century.

He went to work in a local steel mill.

In May 2000, Jenkins was hired to work at Gary Works, U.S. Steel’s largest manufacturing facility, located along the banks of Lake Michigan about 30 miles southeast of Chicago.

Gary Works once was the shining jewel of the American steel industry, employing more than 30,000 workers at its height. That no longer was the case by 2000, but the mill was still a good place to work, providing well-paying, benefit-friendly jobs that helped many people move into the middle class.

Jenkins was born and raised in Gary, a city with a Black population of more than 80 percent. In previous decades, Gary was a thriving industrial city that supported the growth of a Black middle class, much like places like Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Mich., and Youngstown, Ohio.

This past May, Jenkins celebrated 20 years of employment at Gary Works before he was laid off because unfair competition from China and the slowdown of the economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

And even though Jenkins did not know Gary in its heyday as the “Magic City,” he has witnessed further decline in his hometown, and sees the injustices done to his city and the people living there.

“Being right here in Gary, Indiana, I’ve been hearing certain things about the taxes and all that are going to the city but at the same time when you don’t see too much being catered to within your city, you know things aren’t right,” Jenkins said. “Gary used to have programs in high schools that actually allowed young people to actually get hired into a plant and make some pretty good money, but over the years its like the hiring process of students from Gary is behind us.

“And that is an unfortunate ordeal that is going on, especially when you are talking about Black people working in the manufacturing industry.”

In the 1970s, Gary’s factories began to close, and jobs began to disappear. Crime rose, and people left. Today, the population is half of what it was in its manufacturing heyday, with just 74,000 residents. Gary now has a poverty rate of 33.52 percent; just 13.2 percent of residents hold a bachelor’s degree.

“I didn’t understand it at first, but when I actually reflected and looked at my city when I was coming up, the economics in a lot of Black cities, that was well, the economics for that city,” Jenkins said. “Black folks shopped in that city, they resided in that city, and we did a lot right there in those cities. But once those manufacturers left, it kind of left a sore that never healed.”

Jenkins continued: “When you look at a city like Gary, it’s a city where the resources aren’t as strong or accessible like a lot of other communities that surround us, where a lot of the white steelworkers live. At the same time, when it comes to management and upper management, you don’t see a lot of Black folks with those roles.”

Jenkins works as a steel pourer in the Number 2 Caster department, where they make steel slabs and coils. He points to his own department to exemplify the racial inequality that he feels is unfair to the residents of Gary.

“In my department, out of like 14 to 16 managers, just one is Black,” Jenkins said. “I am not really worried about the management, but they play a significant part as far as getting people hired in that don’t look like me. They live in the nearby suburban cities, and that takes away from the city of Gary where the plant is literally located.

“As far as the hourly employees, I would love to see more Black people getting hired in from the city of Gary. I just think you have this huge plant that is in a predominantly Black city, but the workforce doesn’t actually represent that, and I think that’s a huge problem.

“This is the major thing about it. You don’t have any kind of economic resources which good-paying jobs create, and that money goes back into the community. Those few within the community that get a job,  they end up moving out of the community, because of the deprivation of that community, because of the lack of economic resources.”

Confronting Stereotypes

Jenkins has received a lifetime of education during his 20 years of employment at Gary Works.

Economically, he learned the importance of what well-paying employees mean to the community. And as a United Steelworkers official at Local 1014, he’s had lessons in sociology as well. He is a union trustee and is involved in the U.S. Steel Next Generation program that promotes experienced workers sharing their skills with a younger generation of hires.

Jenkins got his job at the plant because of the Urban League, which at the time helped young Black people in Gary find jobs at the city’s many manufacturing facilities, which included Gary Works, LTV Tin Mill, and the Amoco (now British Petroleum) refinery. Jenkins followed the career path of his brother, who was hired at U.S. Steel in 1997 with the help of the Urban League.

But Jenkins now sees a vacuum in opportunities today for Gary’s young Black men.

You can’t explain as a corporation or manufacturer saying Black Lives Matter if you don’t have a Black workforce. E.J. Jenkins

In 2010, Jenkins was assisting with new employee orientation training when he became even more aware of the challenges facing young Black men from Gary, many of which were based on unfair stereotypes.

“I heard the statement from both Black and white people that the reason that a lot of Blacks aren’t getting hired from Gary is because they can’t pass the drug test,” Jenkins said. “I hate that statement, and I am sorry but that is not fair to me, because we have too many people in our community trying to get jobs and that seems like a scapegoat reason, because you can’t tell me that anybody that is white is not actually using drugs or would fail a drug test.

“That’s a real big stereotype, and I try to confront it every time I hear it. That is not even a fact. When I ask people about it, they can bring me no evidence. They are just going on what other people are saying. When I hear that I just can’t allow it. You either bring me the proof or literally just be quiet. I just want it to be fair.”

A Time for Action

Jenkins describes himself as a realist. He knew that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit it would just be a matter of time before more layoffs at Gary Works would materialize.

Gary Works makes steel for many products including automobiles, appliances and even tin cans. With the auto industry struggling, Jenkins knew the need for steel would diminish. Gary Works has now shut down two of its four blast furnaces.

Still, Jenkins hopes to return to the mill and put in another 10 years of work once the pandemic is mitigated and the economy rebounds.

In the meantime, after 20 years of witnessing racial inequality in the workplace, Jenkins has turned his attention to America’s overall racial inequalities. He recently attended a Black Lives Matter rally in Chicago after the senseless killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.

“You know the craziest part about it is it took the isolation of a pandemic to open up the eyes of a nation to the existence of another pandemic, which is racism,” Jenkins said. “It opened up the eyes of a nation to an existing pandemic, and I’m saying that because it really doesn’t matter which era you go back to, young people always have this idea of I’m not going to let them do that to me.

“Now that we have this era right here – and I really saw it when I was in Chicago – was that you have a lot of young whites who have really learned what’s going on. At first, I wanted to call it sympathetic, but they are understanding what has been going on with Black folks and what’s been going on in the Black community and just to people of color period.

“It’s like they want to see change. They really want change, and now is our time not to just have conversations about it but conversations about it that are going to lead to solutions. And solutions have to automatically have to consist with inclusion, because how can you see a lot of the big businesses and corporations solve a racial problem when they are not even inclusive.”

Jenkins feels that there is no time like the present to address these inadequacies. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, people are isolated at home and are focused on America’s racial discrepancies.

“You really can’t go out and have a good time so right now is the perfect time, because people have nothing else to do but to pay attention to something that’s been ignored for a long time,” he said. “It’s like the NFL with [Colin] Kaepernick. It shouldn’t have taken [NFL Commissioner Roger] Goodell this long to come out and say he was wrong about the taking the knee protests. It shouldn’t have taken a lot of the unions to come and say they stand against this, when it’s been happening all along.

“We are at a point where we have even businesses and some manufacturing companies coming out and saying the same thing. Well, it’s cool to say that. It’s a step and it is good, but if you can turn those steps into tangible actions than your actions speak louder than your words. You can’t explain as a corporation or manufacturer saying Black Lives Matter if you don’t have a Black workforce.

“I’ve seen the soundbites for a very long time, and I am not that easily convinced. I am more convinced when it comes to actions after I hear the soundbites. And when I went to Chicago, it showed me a point of change, especially within the younger white community. They want to literally figure out how to move with it now and not wait for the next thing to happen.”

Despite the challenges facing both Gary and the country, Jenkins is hopeful. Manufacturing has been good to him, creating an opportunity to provide for his two children and live a modest but comfortable life.

Now he just wants to see the same opportunities available to the next generation of younger Black workers in cities like Gary.

“Hopefully, this time, we can create some kind of meaningful change,” he said.

Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of interviews with Black factory workers about racism in the United States and their experiences in the manufacturing industry. If you or someone you know would like to take part, please email [email protected].