Recession Batters Workforce In Racine, Wis.

On Wednesday, President Obama visited Racine, Wis., a town that has suffered tough economic blows for years and has had what's left of its manufacturing workforce decimated by the recent recession. Michele Norris talks to Rich Rovito, of The Business Journal of Milwaukee, about the disparities between the manufacturing and corporate sectors in the Racine area.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

P: Racine. It's a manufacturing town where jobs have been disappearing for decades, including thousands since Mr. Obama took office.

Not all the city's workforce is blue-collar, though. It's also home to the corporate headquarters for companies like S.C. Johnson and Modine Manufacturing.

For a more detailed picture of Racine and its economic troubles, I spoke with Rich Rovito, a reporter for the Business Journal of Milwaukee.

BLOCK: Racine has a long history of deep ties to the manufacturing sector. So when the economy goes sour, Racine gets hit especially hard. Second highest unemployment rate in the state right now at over 14 percent, but that's actually down. It was up around 16, 17 percent in recent months.

You've got companies that have been laying off workers, shutting down plants. But at the same time, you do have the corporate headquarters there. S.C. Johnson, one of the largest companies in Wisconsin, done fairly well in weathering the recession.

In essence, it's the blue-collar folks that have gotten hit a lot harder here. But that's kind of the way it is in southeastern Wisconsin all together. There's a large portion of this economy that still is driven strongly by the manufacturing sector.

NORRIS: Now, as we noted, Racine has been losing jobs for a very long time. Have things improved at all since Obama took office? Did the hundreds of thousands - in fact, millions of dollars in stimulus funding make a difference?

BLOCK: Well, the stimulus money seems to have ended up on the roads. Every road project that they think they could get in, they're doing right now in southeastern Wisconsin. And I don't see a lot of it going directly to manufacturers.

You have one company in Racine, Ruud Lighting, that makes energy-efficient street lighting, that has gotten some stimulus funds. But that's, as far as I know, that's about the extent of it, as far as what's gone to manufacturers. Most of it has gone into street projects.

NORRIS: During the election, the president had a difficult time connecting with blue collar workers throughout the country, but not in Wisconsin. He had strong support from the manufacturing base there. Is that still the case?

BLOCK: I think so. There is news coming down today that's going to make things a lot better. Bucyrus International, one of the companies in southeastern Wisconsin that has done very well, they were on the verge of losing a $600 million order. The U.S. Export-Import Bank decided not to provide loan guarantees to a company that was building a mine in India, which jeopardized the $600 million order and a thousand jobs that were tied to it.

Senator Herb Kohl from Wisconsin, as well as some local elected officials and President Obama, chimed in on this and just about an hour ago, got word that they are considering reversing the decision and will provide loan guarantees that will save this order and save these jobs.

NORRIS: The president is greeted today by members of the local Tea Party, and they say the president is not doing nearly enough to fix the local economy. Is that a popular sentiment?

BLOCK: I think so. Here in Wisconsin, we feel the effects of the downturn differently just because at last count, Wisconsin was either first or second in the number of overall jobs tied to manufacturing. And with that sector being hit as hard as it was, even the iconic manufacturers in the area, like Harley-Davidson which for two decades just reported quarter after quarter of record earnings, they've been struggling like crazy the last two years, closing plants, shedding thousands of jobs, threatening to move work out of Wisconsin. So things have not turned around yet.

NORRIS: So, Rich Rovito, we've been talking about blue-collar workers. Let's talk about white-collar workers. What's the view of Obama there?

BLOCK: I think maybe a little bit better. I want to say that politics stays out of it a little bit more at the white-collar level. It seems like there's been more voices out there on the manufacturing floor about these issues than there have been in the corner offices.

NORRIS: Are folks in Racine talking about any kind of recovery? Is that a word you hear there?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: You hear from the elected officials down there. But whether or not you're actually seeing that on the streets, I don't see it. It's just been a real slow struggling recovery.

NORRIS: Rich Rovito, thanks so much for talking to us.

BLOCK: Thank you, Michele, my pleasure.

NORRIS: Rich Rovito is a reporter for the Business Journal of Milwaukee.

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