Preconceptions are the enemy of good journalism. Reporters vigorously guard against them so they can follow the story wherever it leads. But when I traveled to Wausau, Wis., where the unemployment rate is a full percentage point below the national rate, I admit a few preconceptions crept in. I imagined a “Help Wanted” sign in every shop window and harried business owners working long hours because they couldn’t find hired help.
Turns out Help Wanted signs aren’t more prevalent in Wausau than elsewhere. And aside from some grumbling about mandatory overtime and the impressive success of a real estate agent, who has so much work that she recently mowed her lawn by flashlight, this tidy north-central Wisconsin city seems fairly laid back.
What I didn’t expect to find was the power that comes when the biggest employers are locally owned.
In many ways, Wausau is living the economic dream of every mayor, governor, and president. Almost anyone can find a job. A previous addiction or run-in with the law doesn’t disqualify applicants. In 2016, researchers at Pew found Wausau had a bigger share of its population in the middle class than any other US city. Now, the acute worker shortage is giving labor even more bargaining power with the captains of industry, who are quietly raising wages and improving benefits to attract and retain workers.
Ironically, the root of this relatively egalitarian prosperity lies in the Gilded Age, a period with even more income inequality than today. Realizing that the region was running out of the prized white pine, an informal group of lumber barons known as the Wausau Group diversified into paper mills and eventually wooden window and door manufacturing. In 1911, they created a workers’ compensation insurance company just as Wisconsin was passing the nation’s first workers’ compensation law. The company would grow to become Wausau Insurance, the nation’s largest provider of workers’ comp protection.
That paternalistic control by local corporate leaders – they were all white males – set the stage for modern Wausau. They funded the arts. The economy still hums because of insurance, window and door manufacturing (now aluminum instead of wood), and paper labels (a derivative of the defunct paper industry). For as undemocratic and parochial as they were, is there something to be said in this age of globalization for locally owned companies, whose leaders walk the same streets as their workers?
Now, that local control is slipping away. Wausau Insurance got bought out. Wausau Window and Linetec, two manufacturers in town, are run by a Minneapolis corporation. The biggest employer in town is a nonprofit health-care provider. Will the remaining local firms offer the same farsighted leadership for a much more diverse city?
There are hopeful signs. Local manufacturers have banded together to attract welders and machinists. The group hosts the annual Heavy Metal Tour, exposing students to factories. The city is diversifying the housing stock.
Time will tell if it’s enough to set the stage for another century of progress.