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When Jobs Disappear

Indiana workers grapple with a factory closure

American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears by Farah Stockman. Penguin Random House, 432 pages.

In 1924, the New York City sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd began a program of research into the work habits, family and child-raising practices, and social ideas of a curious tribe: the people of a small industrial city in the Midwest. Based on eighteen months the authors spent living in Muncie, Indiana (which they dubbed Middletown), their book became an instant classic in the field of social anthropology, a study of how a community clings to tradition in the face of tremendous material change.

The Middletown study—and its sequel, Middletown in Transition, which charted Muncie’s fate in the Great Depression years—remains a landmark work. But while the Lynds approached their subject with care, precision, and grace, there is a way in which their pioneering project helped inspire a more problematic style of reportage: that of the East Coast writer who jets into Midwestern towns to offer insight for the urbane readers back home. This version of writing about the benighted Midwest flourished following the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

When New York Times journalist Farah Stockman began her reporting on the 2017 shutdown of Rexnord, a three-hundred-person Indiana factory making ball bearings, she might have wound up with a story that involved parachuting into Indiana to interview a few random people found in coffee shops or street corners about why they voted for Trump, then quoting them with an implicit cluck of the tongue, suggesting the irony of it all. Instead, she wrote an excellent profile of Shannon Mulcahy, the first woman to operate a “heat treat” machine at the factory. Mulcahy took tremendous pride in her work, which paid her enough to enable her to escape abusive domestic relationships and help care for her profoundly disabled granddaughter. Yet she lost her job when the factory moved to Texas and Mexico. In an especially savage twist, management asked its Indianapolis workers to train their cheaper Mexican replacements—which Mulcahy chose to do.

Stockman’s profile became the basis for American Made, a surprisingly rich and complex study of the lives and ideas of these Indiana workers. While much ink has been spilled in recent years trying to dissect the inner lives of Trump voters and the unfathomable depths to which they might sink, Stockman’s unsparing description of the complex ideas and challenging lives of three Rexnord workers offers a stark challenge to anyone who would write off the heartland as deplorable. 

Ball bearings are everywhere in an industrial society, invisible yet essential. Their job is to “reduce friction,” as Stockman puts it. They are the mechanism that allows earth movers, wheat combines, and conveyor belts to move smoothly; nuclear submarines and retractable stadium roofs alike use ball bearings. Until something goes wrong, no one ever thinks of them.

Steady work is like that too. No matter how awful it is, its very stability and predictability smooths out problems, makes them bearable. There are so many tradeoffs that can be made to keep a job, so many diminishments that can be reasoned away. But when the job disappears, all kinds of conflicts—personal, economic, political—suddenly burst into the open.

American Made joins a long literature on the surreal social landscape of the rise and fall of American industry. For one hundred years, the rhythms of manufacturing defined those of the United States. Cities and communities that produced iron, steel, automobiles, machine parts, airplanes, textiles, plastics, and electronics sprang into being across the country. Factories brought into being new working classes. They created new kinds of economic institutions and political ideas: the assembly line, Fordism, the CIO. The wealth that they produced created a surplus to be struggled over, the products that flowed from them setting into motion a dynamic of change and transformation.

There are so many tradeoffs that can be made to keep a job, so many diminishments that can be reasoned away. But when the job disappears, all kinds of conflicts suddenly burst into the open.

Then, bit by bit, the factories were taken apart, shipped away, sent off. This strange spectacle of the dismantling of wealth has generated a new body of historical scholarship, especially since the 1980s. Much of that work has treated the impact of deindustrialization on cities and its contribution to the emergence of an “inner city.” William Julius Wilson’s When Work Disappears (to which Stockman’s subtitle seems to nod) along with The Truly Disadvantaged sought to counter racist stereotypes about Black poverty. (They also broadened the discussion, since the famous Middletown studies focused on white families, even though Muncie was 5 percent Black.) Wilson claimed that crime, drug addiction, and unwed motherhood—which Wilson, following in the footsteps of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, viewed as a self-evident social crisis that would undermine the psyches of Black men—were not the result of inherent cultural weaknesses or even racial discrimination. Instead, they were the consequence of the loss of good jobs. The industrial employment that had greeted immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe when they arrived in Chicago and Detroit and Milwaukee in the early twentieth century was contracting by the time Black immigrants came from the rural hinterlands of the South. The result was that many were shut out of the chance to acquire wealth, their neighborhoods marked as poor and pathological.

Stockman writes as a journalist, focused on particular narratives rather than social trends. In addition to Shannon Mulcahy—who is the center of the book—Stockman tells the story of Wally Hall, a Black man who was able to get a job at Rexnord after cycling through a stint of drug dealing and a series of run-ins with the law. Of the three, he is the most optimistic about the plant closure: he figures it will give him the chance to start the barbecue business he’s always dreamed about, and he bubbles with enthusiasm about the possibilities that might open up for him without the ball and chain of factory life. The third is John Feltner, a white worker who has been at Rexnord the shortest period of time—having survived one previous plant closure—but who is most involved with the union there. Perennially confrontational, Feltner has an acute sense of class injustice and tries to press the union (he is vice-president of the local representing Rexnord workers) to take more aggressive action to protect the workers.

The portraits of all three workers are fascinating and grim. Of the three, Feltner seems to fare the best in the shutdown’s aftermath. He manages to get a job at a hospital, which does not pay as well as his old position but which promises to be less likely to relocate—health care replacing the factory, a place to tend to the people whose lives were ground up in the plant and who now suffer the diseases of the dispossessed (as Gabriel Winant argues in his chronicle of deindustrialization in Pittsburgh, and the rise of health care in place of the steel plants). Feltner is at times obtuse, especially about racial discrimination. He is skeptical about talk of white privilege and fears that too much emphasis on racism will erode the solidarity of the union. A Confederate flag—which he insists is just a family relic, having nothing to do with the history of slavery—hangs in his garage. He votes for Trump, who talks about bringing the factories back and ending the trade agreements that made it possible for them to go. But Stockman never dismisses him as a racist, instead engaging his strong moral commitment to the dignity and security of working-class people. Feltner does not blame the Mexican workers who will replace those on the line at Rexnord, but instead the bosses of the company for the losses that he and the others face.

Mulcahy is less political than Feltner, but Stockman makes clear how her life has been shaped by the distinctive pressures placed on women. There is an old trope in writing about industrialism of the factory as a liberating space for working-class women—the “mill girls” of Lowell, Massachusetts, for example, who found in the routines of the factory respite from the patriarchal authority of fathers and husbands. And while generations of socialist feminists have pointed out the limits of this vision and the degree to which the industrial workplace relies upon and sustains male authority, Mulcahy’s story suggests the extent to which a steady job can provide the space to build a life. When the factory disappears, she is thrown back, as Stockman notes, on the kindness of strangers: a modern Blanche DuBois. Her daughter receives money from a local philanthropists to attend Purdue University, and Stockman’s original newspaper reporting wins Mulcahy the attention of a wealthy businessman who wants to help her out. He pays off her mortgage, and puts $25,000 in her bank account, but his initial offer of a job in Vegas falls through, and the ready cash doesn’t seem a replacement, really, for the social world of work and the autonomy and freedom it once provided her.

Saddest of all is the story of the charming and entrepreneurial Raleigh “Wally” Hall, Jr. His marriage falls apart, he gets involved with a former girlfriend who uses drugs, and then he takes over the care of her preteen daughter. His optimism about running his own business and doing what he loves—cooking for a crowd—seems increasingly hard to maintain in the face of the sheer difficulty of the task. Even friends who say they will contract with his nascent catering company don’t come through in the end. Hall tries to keep his good spirits, to insist that he’ll be okay. But the stress is palpable, and comes to a disastrous climax when he dies of a heart attack after refusing to go seek medical care because he lacks insurance. His death fulfills the oracle-like warning of a local steelworker union leader upon the shuttering of the plant: that in a year, “at least one” of the three hundred workers at Rexnord would be dead.  

Throughout the book, there’s also a fourth character: that of Stockman herself, who stands in for the liberal coastal elite. As she visits Indianapolis and grows close to the Rexnord workers, she becomes ever more uncomfortable about the gap that separates her world from theirs. She misses fancy artisanal restaurants and craft cocktails and contemplates taking Mulcahy out for dinner at a local spot that caters to these tastes—but decides against it, believing that Mulcahy would find their small, elaborately plated portions condescending, their habit of listing ingredients pretentious and opaque. The people she writes about own guns, smoke tobacco, try to fix things that break instead of calling for help right away. None of them hold a B.A., despite all having taken a few community college classes, whereas “nearly everyone” that Stockman knows has at least completed college if not graduate school. Stockman’s social circle does not include many people who have died—in contrast to Mulcahy, who has lost friends, former boyfriends, family members. All three of her subjects are grandparents in their forties, while she was forty-two when her first daughter was born. She is able to make so many trips to Indianapolis because of her ability to pay for excellent child care—provided by a child care worker who is an immigrant from Mexico.

Thinking of the problems of the Rexnord workers not only in terms of “globalization” and capital flight, but the political power of employers, offers a different lens onto the issue—one that might lead to solidarity as well as compassion.

These cultural gaps extend to political ones. For Stockman, the idea that free trade is a good thing had been axiomatic, an article of faith. Her economist friends reassure her that the factories can’t be brought back, and that cheap imported goods lift the standard of living. Viewed through this lens, Trump appears a demagogue. Doesn’t America have the largest economy, the most powerful military in the world? “Aren’t we already first?”

Over the course of American Made, Stockman’s perspective changes. By the end of the book, she has come to believe that the costs of free trade are too great, that inexpensive cell phones and laptops and plastic toys do not outweigh the loss of stable communities that plants like Rexnord can support.

But what to do about it? Stockman’s book offers a model of compassionate, detailed reporting—the sustained effort and commitment that it took to write an alternative to cheap shots about Trump backers in the Midwest. The people she writes about are trying to grapple with an impossible situation and doing so with the political tools available. And yet at the same time, her own acute sense of cultural, social, and political distance from her subjects is perhaps greater than it needs to be, in ways that constrict her political imagination and sympathies.  

After all, white-collar workers—even academics and journalists—face many of the same pressures that confront the workers of Rexnord. Having a job at the New York Times (where reporters have union representation, one might add) is no doubt a position of privilege, even a certain kind of power. But the journalists at small papers that are going under, the writers fighting it out in the ruthless online market—these are an insecure working population, not so very different from the workers in Indiana even though they may hold college degrees. Thinking of the problems of the Rexnord workers not only in terms of “globalization” and capital flight, but the political power of employers, offers a different lens onto the issue—one that might lead to solidarity as well as compassion, to a sense of fighting together rather than offering sympathy from far away.

The last pages of American Made detail Mulcahy’s political transformation over the summer of 2020. Mulcahy is one of the first people Stockman knows to express anxiety over the coronavirus when it still seemed a pathogen contained in Wuhan. She grows alienated from Trump as he bullies people for wearing masks. “He didn’t save no jobs,” she says of the president. A young organizer gets Mulcahy involved in marches and politics, and she finds that when she begins to participate in a group and to go to protests the media pays attention—suddenly they notice. At the very end of the book, in a phone call with Stockman after she’s returned to her Cambridge home, Mulcahy tells the reporter that she is going to go over to South Bend, where another factory is shutting down: “We’re going to see what we can do.” While it might be too much to ask for Stockman to go join her there, she can always take a stint on a picket line closer to home—say, with the Harvard TAs or the Wirecutter Union next time they go out on strike.