Steel Away

The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America BY Gabriel Winant. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 368 pages. $35.
The cover of The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America

The past few years have seen the resurgence of the working class as a topic of interest, with pundits passing judgements and Ivy League–educated politicians posturing for proletarian clout, though all too often without any input from the workers themselves.

If working-class people are present, they often get the Hillbilly Elegy–treatment. Real people are reduced to caricatures or abstractions; “the workers” become a catchall scapegoat for backwardness, racism, unwillingness to change, and, almost always, as a proxy for whiteness. Trump’s rise is blamed on the working class, an act of misrecognition that doubles as a form of victim-blaming. If the workers are all these bad things, it must be their fault that they suffer.

The rise in inequality coupled with the destruction of local journalism has meant that we read far too few writers who see Appalachian mining communities or factory towns in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley not as places to go on safari but simply as “home,” the people who live there not as material for a faraway audience but as the readers of the stories, the buyers of the books made about them.

In a landscape, then, saturated with opinions about the working class but very little direct knowledge about it, lands historian Gabriel Winant’s The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America. Winant’s time in Pittsburgh, where the shuttering of steel mills has made health care the dominant industry, was the opposite of a safari expedition. He digs deep into the stories of working people, tracing the rise and fall of two industries that, despite vast differences on the surface, have been intertwined for decades. Through stories of real people’s real lives, Winant explores the move from manufacturing to care, tracing the rise of a new working class—one that looks very different from the stereotypical blue-collar worker of the Rust Belt’s mythic past.

By doing so, he shows us how the working class was decomposed—broken apart, not just left behind—and recomposed into something different. In his words, “This mirrored historical paradox—between care workers’ absent presence and industrial workers’ present absence—is the puzzle of this book.” Or, another way to frame that puzzle: Why are we haunted by one vision of a white, male worker with grime under his nails when the reality is more often a Black woman in scrubs?

Work does more than make products or profits; it constructs the way we live. As Winant writes, the factories in Pittsburgh “did not just make metal goods; they made people, institutions, a way of life, and a system of relationships—a social world.” And when steel dominated the economy, that meant a social world molded to the shape of steelworkers’ lives. Thanks to many often-brutal struggles between workers and their bosses—the Homestead steel strike near Pittsburgh in 1892 left seven workers dead at the hands of Pinkerton agents—these jobs had some measure of dignity, union protections, and a decent wage, even as, Winant writes, the steelworkers cursed the mill and dreaded being stuck there all their lives.

One of the key benefits that workers won was health care, provided through employer-funded insurance rather than through state programs like in most other industrialized nations. They made what was known as the family wage—meaning that a male worker would make enough to support a wife who stayed home with the kids, to buy that home in the first place, even take a few vacations. In exchange for that security, Winant notes, the labor movement gave up more-expansive demands for greater workplace control; this arrangement, he writes, “disciplined them through that security,” into the nuclear family as well as the workplace. When the wheels began to come off, and the steel mills closed in high-wage Pittsburgh, even the workers who had lost their jobs retained some access to health care—to labor performed mainly by women, now paid (a pittance) in the workplace (and unpaid in the home).

As the economy rolled and creaked into a new shape, we were left with polarization, with fewer workers in industry at all, profits emanating from sectors—like finance—that employ far fewer people, and labor pooling in fields like health care, which operate on a razor’s margin. The care economy, Winant notes, is in the bottom quintile of wage distribution, but “accounted for 56 percent of all job growth in the 1980s”—“and 74 percent in the 2000s.”

And that care work is gendered labor that was made in the shape of the women, many of them women of color, who have long done it. First for free in the home, and then pushed out to seek wages as the “men’s jobs” in the factories and mills faded, for cheap in hospitals and home-care agencies. Black men were the first to lose their jobs in the mills, if they’d ever been able to get them, so Black women were the first to move into the new health-care jobs, their work doubly undervalued due to racism and sexism. The world shaped by men’s jobs has been reshaped by women’s work, but their work has yet to be valorized the way (white) male jobs were. Lip service may have been paid to the “essential workers” as the pandemic began, but their conditions continue to erode as the crisis drags on. This is the way, Winant notes, old race and gender hierarchies are reproduced through the job market.

These hierarchies persist in the way “the workers” are invoked to deride protesters calling to defund the police. They ignore real workers like Charles Kinsey, a caregiver shot by North Miami police in 2016 while he tended to his charge, a man with autism; or Breonna Taylor, an EMT and aspiring nurse killed in her home by Louisville police; or Corey Long, an elder-care worker who used a makeshift flamethrower to protect himself and his community from neo-Nazis in the streets of Charlottesville. The worker of the popular imagination may still be the stereotypical steelworker, even if those jobs are long gone. The Homestead smokestacks still stand, but beneath them now is a shopping mall.

Does the factory worker linger in the political imaginary because politicians and pundits assume, as their bosses do, that Black care workers have only one political option anyway? The white-male worker might flee to Trumpery, but Black women remain the most dedicated Democratic base, the glue of their communities, the ones who care for the living and grieve for the dead. Their care, their love, has long been undervalued and exploited, yet it is the basis for the reproduction of an entire society.

Those health-care workers and other service employees have also fought battles that shaped their industries and our world; Local 1199, now part of the Service Employees International Union, started as a rambunctious, militant union with ties to the rising Civil Rights movement, working to win power for hospital workers even while they were still locked out of federal labor law. In 1969 in Pittsburgh, as elsewhere, Winant writes, the union ran into “the sanctified, quasi-familial ideal of health care provision.” Health-care workers’ demands, unlike those of steelworkers, were pitted against those of other working-class people by skillful bosses determined to avoid unions; the present and past steelworkers’ need for care was more important than the health-care workers’ need for union rights akin to those of the steelworkers. (This strategy was later, in fact, turned against the steelworkers in the lead-up to the Volcker shock in the era of stagflation.) Yet it was the boss, not the patients, who was crunching the workers: in health care, as in other labor-intensive industries, there was little to squeeze for added returns except workers.

The American public-private mash-up of a welfare state, then, produced “islands of social citizenship and surrounding forms of insecurity,” and as the political climate changed over the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, the beaches of those islands eroded, leaving more and more people adrift. But there were always those who challenged the idea that state support should be limited to white monogamous working families. In Pittsburgh, the local welfare-rights organization, led by former hospital worker Frankie Mae Jeter, agitated for the caring work women did in the home to be treated as worthy of benefits, seeking, Winant writes, “to detach survival from production.” It was a struggle eventually defeated by Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform,” itself enabled by racism.

The idea, Winant notes, “that men were heroic breadwinners while women were altruistic caregivers; that by extension, masculine industrial work was real work while feminized reproductive labor was natural, an innate labor of love,” has been twisted to produce insecurity on a massive scale. It is one we will have to shake in order to really understand the era in which we live.

Winant is an academic historian, yet his book is marvelously accessible, produced in conversation with those workers, and taking seriously their own understanding of their lives and the way they were “melted down and recast” over the past few decades. In the process, The Next Shift reminds us that they are potential agents of future change. Capitalism is shaped, after all, in those spaces where workers and their bosses collide; it will continue to be so, and those who want to do more than spin nostalgic fantasies must understand the terrain on which they fight. This book is a necessary guide to one very important battlefield—one that has only become more significant with the momentous events of 2020—and a road map for how to think about the changing working class.

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at Type Media Center and the author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone (2021, Bold Type Books).