Reviewed by Bob Bonner

June 5, 2024

 


Rust Belt Union Blues: Why Working Class Voters Are Turning Away from the Democratic Party

by Lainey Newman and Theda Skocpol. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2023. 328 pp.)


 

The gods have descended from Mount Olympus, (Harvard University), to enlighten us with a 303-page book entitled, Rust Belt Union Blues: Why Working Class Voters Are Turning Away from the Democratic Party  by Lainey Newman and Theda Skocpol (New York: Columbia University Press, 2023) . Their work is focused on Western Pennsylvania with special attention given to the steel towns that line the Monongahela River (Homestead, Duquesne, Clairton, McKeesport, Donora, Monessen, Charleroi) and Aliquippa on the Ohio River.

The Harvard-based authors, Lainey Newman and Theda Skocpol admit to interviewing “more than fifty people” and reviewing numerous old union newsletters from the USW [United Steelworkers] locals in what residents call the Mon Valley, as well as from the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers).  They counted bumper stickers in the mill parking lots and looked at voting patterns from the 1960s.

Columbia University Press published Rust Belt Union Blues in 2023. It proclaimed its intent to  “further our understanding of the social grounding of the identities and loyalties of union members, particularly those of blue-collar men doing heavy industrial work.” The writers cite political scientist Leonie Huddy’s belief that “group identity is central to voting behavior” and explore the concept of “the union man” defined by mutual commitment, occupational pride, and historical awareness.

They assert that “the evidence we have presented in this book falls in line with accumulating scholarship on the decline of U.S. civic engagement and community involvement, especially in less economically privileged places.”  They argue further, “that workers’ political reorientations happened at least as much through shifting understanding of ‘who we are’ and upended perceptions of which major U.S. political party is ’on our side’ in public declared stances as well as policy promises.” They close by asking “what’s next?”, is there any way to rebuild union solidarity?

They make a lot of noise about gun groups and megachurches filling the void left by the destruction of steelworker locals. They paint a fairly idyllic picture of steelworkers before 1970 with everybody involved in union-led social and athletic events, auxiliaries and civic affairs. I am not sure the Black workers hired almost exclusively for hot, dirty, and dangerous production jobs would agree with the picture painted. Nor would many men working rotating shifts, which were just brutal on body and soul, subscribe.

The truth is that gun clubs existed long before the crash of the industry and that most National Rifle Association (NRA) members join because of the free insurance they get on their guns. I remember doing a construction job in Johnstown, Pennsylvania and the Business Agent for the Cement Finishers learned through experience that the NRA was a political, not a sporting organization and dropped his membership. He said the NRA sent a representative to his house to try to get him to rescind his decision.

The book also picks up on the “metro” versus “rural” argument that maintains that the Democratic Party has favored the metropolitan areas to the detriment of small towns and rural areas and thus spurred worker exodus from the party. They paint Pittsburgh much as the ruling class does, as an economic revival miracle of Hospitals and Universities and not as a city that lost 53% of its population and which for a second time faces an extended period of state budgetary oversight due to corporate giants challenging their property tax assessments. One of the authors, Newman, is from Pittsburgh and should be aware of the fiscal crisis greatly exacerbated by the fact that approximately 30% of the property controlled by the “meds and eds” evade the tax rolls by masquerading as not-for-profits.

Pittsburgh housing is inadequate and unaffordable due to gentrification. Pittsburgh is not alone in experiencing a crisis of homelessness, underfunding for schools and social programs, drug overdoses and addiction, lack of mental health services, petty crime and and nuisance complaints. Public urination and defecation are commonplace. It’s no different than what you’ll see and hear in New York, L.A, San Francisco, or any other major city.

As a Marxist and resident of the Mon Valley I fault the authors for failing to explore the rich history of struggle in Western Pennsylvania that created the material conditions that sustained USW membership and the communities in which union families lived and worked. The authors cite a resident of Charleroi who reports that the streets were so crowded at times that you could barely walk on the sidewalks. The authors completely miss the global context. They never hint at the notion that at that time capitalism was still competing with the Soviet Union to the benefit of U.S. workers.

Nor is there mention of William Z. Foster, the Red Scare and purge of communist organizers, the McCarthy era, the strikes, the poisoning of communities with tons of carcinogenic agents pumped out around the clock, especially in Clairton which housed the largest coke works in the country.

I grew up in the City of Clairton, also a once thriving steel town that boasted numerous stores and shops. There were fifty-one bars in addition to pharmacies, physicians, attorneys, filling stations and furniture stores. Family-owned businesses and the owners and practitioners lived within the city limits. Schools were among the best. The city maintained supervised playgrounds in every neighborhood, recreation centers, a world-class swimming pool, park, and athletic programs and facilities. We were not dissimilar to our neighbors.

By the late 1950s, the company used its considerable legislative power to drastically reduce its tax contributions to the city and school district. Even though phased in over four years it ignited the exodus of professionals which would be closely followed by the red- lining and block-busting schemes that eventually forced the city and school district into state oversight programs that slashed programs.

According to a local pollster, McKeesport, Clairton, and Duquesne top the list of the ten worst places to live in Pennsylvania. De-industrialization meant a calamitous decline for the three formerly thriving communities.

The book gives far too much print to comparing the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) to the USW concerning their organization and the way they relate to their members. Somebody should have informed them that the electrical workers are considered the aristocracy of the building trades that rarely work rotating shifts in the heat and filth that steel workers endure.

The USW was a conservative-led organization that was completely unprepared to mount an effective defense against  the devastation caused by the closures of the 1980s. The USW had negotiated incentive clauses based on production for some positions which many viewed as “piece work”, long an anathema to labor.  USW political activity often simply echoed company calls for protectionist limits on imports. The local governments followed their lead and with good cause. Clairton passed a resolution declaring U.S. Steel “a good neighbor”. These local governments  were ruled by, and dependent upon, the steel mills at the bottom of the hills along the river. And they knew it! The union had been reduced to what Bill Fletcher, Jr. called “collective begging”.

The trauma caused by the cutbacks and closures included suicide, divorce, depression, drug addiction, alcoholism and prompted rank and file despair. There was some fightback through ad hoc organizations acting without a strategy that could effectively challenge the power of the corporate giant. Ron Weisen, former local union president at Homestead, led a group of activists that engaged in nontraditional efforts allied with religious organizations, including direct confrontation even using tactics such as putting dead fish in safe deposit boxes of Mellon Bank. Those stories  are absent from the pages of the Rust Belt account.

Weisen, in a New York Times article from January 27, 1985, said, “Pittsburgh’s civic leaders are trying to turn the Mon Valley into a center for finance, research, and other sectors of the service economy.”  From the same article, Ben Fischer, Director of the Center for Labor Studies at Carnegie Mellon University, who claimed to be developing “an economic plan for the depressed valley,” charged that Mr. Weisen and his allies were ‘not very sophisticated, not very smart, and confused’.” Attempts at employee ownership were defeated at every turn. The Democratic Party was missing in action though it is currently bemoaning the sale of US Steel to Nippon Steel, a Japanese company, on the grounds of national security.

The only hope for steel workers of the Mon and Ohio valleys was for the industry to be nationalized, a demand the Communist Party had been making for years. The CP  had repeatedly urged that basic industry, especially mining and steel, be nationalized and operated safely in the interests of the workers and their communities. The CP passed out its paper, “The Daily Worker,” or “Daily World” or “People’s World” at mine and mill gates throughout the area trumpeting that message. Of course, that message was shunned by a Democratic Party now wondering where its loyal supporters have fled.

The final chapter covers the possibility of rebuilding “union solidarity” and its significance to the future of the Democratic Party and to democracy in general. Are working class voters turning away from the Democratic Party or has that party turned a blind eye to the chaos and deprivation visited on the lives of workers? The simple truth is the Democratic Party abandoned the workers, not vice versa.

 

–Bob Bonner is former president of AFGE Local 2028 in Pittsburgh, PA where he represented US Veterans Administration workers.